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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Question The Internet

While many people have embraced Timothy Leary's advice to question authority, too few demonstrate willingness to question the Internet.

While many people have embraced Timothy Leary's advice to question authority, too few demonstrate willingness to question the Internet.It might seem obvious that one's online experience can be improved by some skepticism and fact checking, but too many people get duped by online scams.

I was thinking about this because a colleague forwarded an e-mail to me that purports to be IRS advice about how to receive a stimulus check.

"After the last annual calculations of your fiscal activity we have determined that you are eligible to receive a Stimulus Payment," it says. "Please submit the Stimulus Payment Online Form in order to process it." It is, of course, a phishing attempt.

It's not hard to figure this out and most computer users can do so. This particular scam is documented at Snopes.com. The FBI has warned about it. The IRS explicitly says that it "does not initiate taxpayer communications through e-mail."

And if that's not enough, the purported IRS Web site page cited to make this phishing scam believable is hosted on .es Web site -- .es being the top-level country code domain for Spain.

Search for the title of the page -- "Welcome to Where's My Stimulus Payment?" -- on the IRS site and you'll find the following message: "We're sorry but our online tool, Where's My Stimulus Payment?, is no longer available."

The IRS adds: "Stimulus payments were required by law to be issued by December 31, 2008."

So anyone receiving an e-mail about a stimulus check isn't getting one.

Phishing shouldn't work. But it does.

I expect that most of the people reading InformationWeek aren't fooled by phishers. But at the risk of stating the obvious, here are a few suggestions to help reduce the risk of being duped. (If this is second nature to you, pass it on to someone less tech savvy or more credulous.)

• First, set your e-mail client so that it won't load images by default.

• Second, set your e-mail client to display message in text rather than HTML.

• Third, if you must display HTML, don't click on links in e-mail messages. Visit Web sites by typing URLs into the address bar of your browser. Notice typos designed to be mistaken for known brands.

• Fourth, use a pop-up blocker or the NoScript Firefox extension.

• Fifth, get curious and use the View Source command for e-mail messages (right-click on a message body in Microsoft Outlook) and Web pages. Look for references to unexpected servers or e-mail addresses, even in messages that appear to come from friends.

• Sixth, search for the subject line or a key phrase from a suspicious e-mail. More often than not, others have spotted the scam and the search engines have noticed.

And if that's too much bother, think of The X-Files and say, "I want to disbelieve." Because while the truth may be out there, it's not in your in-box.

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