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Don't get hooked by phishing scams

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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

TESS VIGELAND: Sadly, foreclosure scammers aren't the only ones prowling around this defective economy. Raise your hand if you've gotten an e-mail warning about back taxes you owe. Or maybe someone mailed you a job listing that sounds perfect. You can see the details for a fee. Scam artists love a good recession, when we're all a little vulnerable. For some help we turn to Jorgen Wouters of Consumer Reports. Welcome to the program.

JORGEN WOUTERS: My pleasure.

VIGELAND: I want to start actually with something I received in the mail recently. This is something called a "property tax reassessment." And I tell you it looks absolutely real. It looks like it came from the county assessor's office. They have my assessor's ID number, they have my address, and it's telling me they can help reduce my property tax. Now there is a phone number on it, so I thought perhaps we would give them a call.

PROPERTY TAX ADJUSTMENT WOMAN: Thank you for calling Property Tax Adjustment Services. At this time all agents are busy. If you would like further assistance, please leave a message with your name and number and someone will get back to you within 24 hours.

VIGELAND: Very interesting. What do you think of this?

WOUTERS: Well, that sounds like a classic case of spearfishing.

VIGELAND: Spearfishing. OK. I've heard of fishing. I think most people have. What is spearfishing?

WOUTERS: Regular fishing is kinda like throwing a bunch of bait in the water or chiming for shark. Spearfishing is a much more targeted type of fishing, where the fishers actually get a hold of some of your personal information and design the e-mail or sometimes the mailing notice to make it look that much more legitimate. Whether it's fake e-mails from the IRS, we've seen some from Western Union, purporting to be from Western Union rather. And unfortunately due to the prevalence of social-networking sites like Facebook and others, identify thieves are finding it very easy to find all sorts of personal information that make spearfishing that much easier.

VIGELAND: You mention the IRS, we have seen the examples of notes that supposedly come from the taxman talking about your economic stimulus refund. If you don't contact us now, then your refund is going to be delayed because of the volume of requests we get for this refund. What does the IRS say about this?

WOUTERS: It's interesting because you see this every year around tax time, and last year we saw them more than usual because of the stimulus checks. And the IRS is quite clear about this. The IRS never initiates any kind of communication via e-mail. It never requests detailed personal information, such as PIN numbers, passwords, and the other types of things these e-mails ask for. So the bottom line is if you get an e-mail from the IRS, and you haven't been in communication with them, it's a fishing attempt. Don't even think twice about it.

VIGELAND: One of my colleagues here at Marketplace received what I think is another, fishing, or spearfishing notice, and it looks like a bill of some sort, although it says it's not a bill. But at the top it reads extremely urgent, time sensitive, and it's something about extending an auto warranty. Is this another example?

WOUTERS: Yeah, absolutely. We've heard about them from readers. And people who work here at "Consumer Reports" have also brought them to our attention. And we've seen mailings like this that say please have your VIN number ready when you call. And it's an obvious attempt to get personal information, and lord knows what they'll use it for.

VIGELAND: What can you tell us about how to detect whether these are real or not. Because like I said, this property tax one that I received, it looks like it came from the assessor's office.

WOUTERS: What we recommend always is once you get one of these if there is a phone number, like the one you received on yours, give it a call. Often you'll just a get a machine or perhaps nothing at all. Any company that you're doing business with, whether it's a bank or whether it's Amazon or an ISP or what have, whenever you do business with them, you should never conduct any business via e-mail, always do it over a secure Web site. Beyond that use good anti-virus software, use good anti-spyware software, and be very cautious about opening any attachment or downloading any files even if it's from someone you know.

VIGELAND: Jorgen Wouters is a reporter and senior producer for "Consumer Reports WebWatch," the Internet integrity division of Consumers Union. Thanks so much for your time today.

WOUTERS: Thanks for having me, Tess.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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