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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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May 17, 2021

Common Learnings from Fishing and Phishing

As a youngster growing up in Southeast Georgia, one of my favorite summer pastimes was fishing with my older brother at the local creek using cane poles and some corn niblets or, if we really hit the bait treasure box, pieces of beef hot dog. There is a reason they call it fishing and not catching as most days we barely got a nibble. But there were those days when we would land a nice-sized bluegill.

As I grew older and my fishing opportunities expanded, I began to learn more about the science and techniques of fishing. To increase the catching, there was a level of knowledge needed as to what type of bait (artificial or live) and what fishing technique (bottom, slow, or fast retrieve) to use to target the species of fish I wanted.

I reviewed the FBI's 2020 Internet Crime Report Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link recently and learned that there were more than 240,000 phishing/smishing/vishing/pharmingOff-site link incidents in 2020—an increase of 110 percent over 2019 (and these are just those that were reported). Losses from these incidents were estimated at $54 million. Reading about this made me flash back to my fishing learnings. I reflected that in phishing, as in fishing, there are those people who simply throw out a baited hook to see what bites they get. They blast out a generic email to tens of thousands of email addresses they bought or otherwise acquired illegally, promising fortunes if you only pay, in advance, a finder's fee or the taxes, with gift cards or cryptocurrency. (These messages have advanced over the years to eliminate the poor grammar and misspellings and provide a more believable scenario about the money that belongs to you.)

It has become obvious to me from my research, from seeing the attacks firsthand, and from listening to my colleagues that criminals are becoming more sophisticated in their messages. They are quick to take advantage of current health or natural disaster crises, sending links to “breaking news” that contain malware or links to false websites to capture your personal information or other credentials. They have become very skilled in identifying a target and researching that individual's hobbies or life events through social media, which allows them to craft a message that appears legitimate and appeals to the target's interest.

My colleagues and I are constantly trying to better educate the public about these threats through our posts, webinars and other publications. Just when we think we've seen it all, the criminals come up with a new twist on an old scheme, such as what we saw over the last year regarding the stimulus payments. The bad guys are always going to be out there hoping they can get a nibble from you so they can try to set the hook and reel you in. Don't let yourself be the catch of the day.