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4/30/2008
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Google Warns Users About Phishing

In advising users to be wary of clicking on links in e-mail messages or responding to requests for personal information, Google is trying to protect its own business.

In a continuation of its series of posts on Internet security, Google on Tuesday warned its users about phishing attacks.

Google engineer Ian Fette in a blog post explains that phishing is pretty simple: "Someone masquerades as someone else in an effort to fool you into sharing personal or other sensitive information with them," he says. "Phishers can masquerade as just about anyone, including banks, e-mail and application providers, online merchants, online payment services, and even governments."

Fette acknowledges that while some phishing attacks are obvious, many are not. "That fake e-mail from 'your bank' can look very real; the bogus 'login page' you're redirected to can seem completely legitimate," he cautions.

As if to demonstrate that point, the SANS Internet Storm Center earlier this month warned that CEOs of some companies are being targeted with a phishing attack that relies on fake federal subpoenas sent via e-mail. It's an obvious attack if you understand that subpoenas aren't sent via e-mail, yet Matt Richard, director of rapid response for security firm iDefense estimated that about 1,800 executives -- about 10% of the total who received the attack -- fell for it and responded.

If business leaders, who ought to know better, get duped, what chance do less sophisticated computer users have?

Jaded Internet veterans and the paranoid may marvel that anyone clicks any links in e-mail messages or believes anything contained therein. They've already stopped trusting anything sent in an e-mail.

But Google can't afford to give up. It cannot afford to let mistrust become the norm among the masses because its business depends upon trust. If skepticism of e-mail spreads to the Web, people will stop clicking on ads and abandon the browser for applications that can deliver safer online interaction.

So it is that Google is advising its users to be wary of clicking on links in e-mail messages or responding to requests for personal information. It's Google's way of saying all is not lost.

Fette suggests that when presented with a URL in an e-mail, users should type it into the browser address bar or select it from the bookmark, if bookmarked already. Sound advice, to be sure, but it's dangerously close to admitting that e-mail just can't be trusted.

It is in Fette's penultimate recommendation -- "Be wary of the 'fabulous offers' and 'fantastic prizes' that you'll sometimes come across on the Web" -- that the challenge Google faces becomes apparent. Google isn't so much warning users about phishing attacks as it is warning users about themselves.

"If something seems too good to be true, it probably is...," explains Fette in a well-meaning attempt to save people from human nature. He's alluding to the promises of riches that phishers use to bait their messages, but his words apply to the Google-powered Internet economy. Advertising may pick up the tab for the free lunch of Internet services available at Google and elsewhere. Just make sure to add the cost of security to the bill.

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