You know not to do it. You don’t respond to those e-mails asking you to update your Social Security number; or credit card, bank or other financial information; or to verify your password at eBay, PayPal or other e-commerce Web sites.

You don’t because you know the chances are high that this is a criminal attempt to steal your identity and your money, and you’d then be left spending many tedious hours trying to straighten out the mess afterward.

Among the latest phishing attacks are e-mails that appear to come from the Internal Revenue Service, trying to trick you into revealing the bank where you do business. The criminals then send an e-mail that appears to come from that bank, asking you to log onto the bank’s Web site. Only the Web site you’re directed to just looks like your bank’s. It’s actually a bogus site put up by the criminals to get your account data so they can log onto your bank’s real site and clean you out.

People still get suckered into these phishing scams, with the Anti-Phishing Working Group (www.antiphishing.org) receiving an average of about 25,000 reports of such attacks each month. Many people think of cybercriminals operating abroad, away from the reaches of American law enforcement, and many do. But the country hosting the greatest number of phishing Web sites is the United States, according to the group. What’s more, the average time that these sites stay up is about four days — long enough to do their dirty work.

Phishing originated with America Online back in the mid-1990s with teenage tricksters enticing naïve users into revealing their passwords to “verify your account” or “confirm billing information.” It later evolved into a more nefarious mode, involving credit cards and other financial information but with the same kinds of pitches being used. By 2004, it was a full-scale crisis. It still is.

Among the other techniques that phishers use are addressing victims using their real names; sending e-mail that appears to come from a trusted friend or co-worker; using a Web address for the phishing site that’s very close to that of the real site, featuring images at the phishing site that were stolen from the real site; using links at the phishing site that connect to the real site; and employing scripts at the phishing site that place a picture of the real Web address over the address bar.

Take These Steps

Protecting yourself against phishing isn’t difficult, and new software provides extra protection. Here are some basic tips that you should share with your employees, your family, your business partners — pretty much anyone who uses computers within your system.

  • Never click on a link in an e-mail message asking you to verify any personal or financial information via the Web. No legitimate company or government agency should ask you to do this. If you think it may be a legitimate request, phone the company and ask if such an e-mail went out.
  • Be careful, though, of e-mails asking you to phone your bank or credit card company to verify information. The phone number may be bogus, directing you to the criminals, who will then try to steal your information. Look up the phone number yourself.
  • Be wary of any links in e-mail messages. Verify that the Web address that the link will take you to is the same address it indicates. Phishers often use the correct Web address as the name of the link but code the link to take you to the bogus address. Be especially wary of Web addresses that include the @ symbol or e-mail messages that ask you to click on an image.
  • Be careful when typing Web addresses into your browser so a typo doesn’t land you at a phishing site by mistake. Using a bookmark or favorite link will prevent this.
  • Use the latest versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox or Opera, which all have anti-phishing features. Make sure you enable these features and keep the software up-to-date.
  • Protect yourself with an Internet security suite such as Norton 360, McAfee Total Protection or the security software provided by your Internet service provider (if such software is provided). Make sure you keep this software up-to-date as well.
  • Be careful about social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook as well as the increasing number of business and professional social network sites that are popping up. Scammers troll these waters looking for innocents to bait, tricking them into revealing financial information, Social Security numbers, mothers’ maiden names and so on.

You may be savvy enough to avoid the above mistakes. Make sure family members, friends, staff and co-workers are as well.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. You can e-mail him at  reidgold@comcast.net or go to  www.reidgoldsborough.com.