How Does Phishing Work?

A phisher's email looks like it has been sent from an organization you trust, such as your bank, but of course, it hasn't been. The trickery is achieved using a technique called spoofing , which is a techie term that basically means to electronically fool. Phishers use a series of tricks to deceive you and make you think you are corresponding with a legitimate organization. Here's how they do it.


Phishers are starting to use spyware to collect personal and financial information by employing a key logger. That's a program slipped onto your computer via a surreptitious web download or installed by a freebie program that can capture what you type on your computer. This information is grabbed by the bad guy across the Internet. The best defense against this is the use of one or more good anti-spyware programs. Learn more in Chapter 2, "Spyware: Overrun by Advertisers, Hijackers, and Opportunists."

Email Address Spoofing

First off, phishers change the sender's address in an email to make it appear as if your bank and not a tongue-pierced kid in a dumpy apartment in Warsaw sent the correspondence. This is done by simply changing the coding in the header of the email (see Figure 4.3). The header is a set of information roughly equivalent to the address information written on an envelope.

Figure 4.3. This email header was taken from a phishing email that purported to be from eBay. The phisher has changed the From: field to make it look like it came from the email address

Imagine if you sent your best friend a letter by mail but instead of putting your own return address on it, you put the return address of his angry ex-wife's lawyer. On receiving it he might freak out because he'd think that she might be trying to make a claim on his new golf clubs. All you've done is spoofed the return address.


Some email programs give you the ability to see the destination website of a link in an email before you click it. For example, in Outlook 2003, if you hover your mouse over a link inside an email, the destination address appears in a floating yellow box. In Outlook Express, this address appears in the status bar across the bottom of the window.

Link Spoofing

The links you are urged to click on in some phishing emails are also spoofed. In the case of web address spoofing, the link looks like a legitimate address, but through some very simple technology redirects to another link.

The phishing email is created with a programming language used to create web pages. In fact, when you receive an email with pictures, fancy fonts, and a nice layout, it is what's called an HTML email. It looks exactly like a web page because it is made with HTMLthe same programming language used to create web pages. HTML is short for HyperText Markup Language.

To create a clickable link in HTML, you use programming code like this:

 <a href=""></a> 

This results in a web link that looks like this:


You can see the source code (and linking information) of an HTML email in Outlook 2003 by opening the email and right-clicking in the body of the message. A View Source option appears. If you click on this option, the HTML source code opens in Notepad.

Note that the web address inside the angle brackets between the quotes and after the <a href= is the web address where you are taken if you click on the link (see Figure 4.4).

Figure 4.4. These two actual web links look exactly the same but the programming used to create them, which appears below each one, have different destinations on the Web.

Phishers use this programming trick to make it appear as if you are going to one site, but really they put the address of a bogus page in the HRef tag, like this:

 <a href="">www.</a> 

So you think you're about to go to but you're actually taken to, which looks like your legitimate bank's webpage and might actually contain a series of web pages to make it look like an actual banking site.

Web Address Spoofing

Phishers have been exploiting a bug (an error) in the programming of Microsoft web browser Internet Explorer so they can display a fake web address in the browser. When you visit a website that exploits this bug, its web address is not displayed in the browser. Instead, another more trustworthy web address is displayed.

So you could be fooled into visiting by a phishing email but your web browser shows you are on


You can tell which version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer you have on your computer by starting the program, clicking the Help menu, and then clicking About Internet Explorer.

The bug affects versions 5.01, 5.5, and 6 of Internet Explorer. However, patches for the vulnerable browser have been issued by Microsoft to fix it. If you run Windows Update and download the latest patches, you will have the patch already installed.

To test if you are vulnerable, open Internet Explorer and visit security firm at If your web browser is not up-to-date with the latest Microsoft fix, you'll see how the spoofing trick works and a fake address appears in your address bar. If the bug is fixed in your browser, you'll see "This page cannot be displayed."


Sometimes there is a form to fill out directly inside a phishing email. If filled out, this sends your information directly to a phisher's server. No intermediary fake website is necessary.

Absolute Beginners Guide To. Security, Spam, Spyware & Viruses
Absolute Beginners Guide to Security, Spam, Spyware & Viruses
ISBN: 0789734591
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 168

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