Again With the Phishing

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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, August 19, 2005; 10:27 AM

I don't usually air the contents of my private e-mails in this column. I feel no such qualms regarding my editor's mail, however.

Here's the beginning of one that he received yesterday:

"Dear Wall Street Journal Online Subscriber,

"As a leader in the online information industry, The Wall Street Journal Online wants to educate our subscribers about an increasingly prevalent online scam commonly known as 'phishing.' "

The letter goes on to define phishing and describe the typical scam. For the record: "Typically, a phisher sends an email or pop-up message that appears to be from a company or brand that you trust, such as a bank or credit card issuer, or even Dow Jones or The Wall Street Journal, in an attempt to obtain sensitive information from you. A phish attempt often threatens that your account is in jeopardy and asks you to validate, confirm or update information, such as your subscriber or credit card information. Phishers usually disguise the "from" address of their emails and present you with links to Web sites that appear to be legitimate, but when you reply to that email or click on those links, you are directed to the phisher."

It then tells subscribers how the Online Journal collects updated customer information so readers can tell the real thing from the phish. It also notes that nervous customers can deal with credit card data and other sensitive information offline by calling a customer service rep.

I have seen letters like this from my bank, my credit card company and other financial institutions, not to mention eBay and other companies whose equipage has been used as disguise for phishers. But it's the first time I've seen it from an online news source, and I don't know whether this is useful or overkill.

It could be both. From my first stumbling steps into the world of commentary writing, I maintained that the purveyors of consumer technology need to do more to make their customers understand the hazards of the online universe. That means explaining the threats, their avenues of delivery and steps people can take to defend themselves, all in simple but accurate language.

The task, as I discovered, is formidable. The nature of the game played by the good, the bad and the ugly of the Internet is intrinsically complex, and explaining it to the public in a way that makes sense to them and, more importantly, shows how it affects their lives, is a talent that remains in short supply. We try the best we can without dumbing it down. The Journal does too, as this letter shows.

On the other hand, how likely is it that an online subscriber to the Wall Street Journal is unaware of the concept and dangers of phishing? I can see people such as my favorite recurring "average computer user" character -- my mother -- having to ask me what a "phish" is and why it's spelled "ph," but Mom doesn't subscribe to or read that many online papers. Instead, the Philadelphia Inquirer tends to pile up on the dining room table until trash day.

But the segment of the population that regularly reads the Journal tends to skew toward those who also use the Internet for various tasks and entertainment. Those who read the Online Journal -- with its quality Internet-only news team -- must be already aware of the dangers of the Internet.

Maybe I'm so far off base that I'm practically AWOL. You tell me. Is there anyone out there who, before reading this far, was not sure they knew what a phishing scheme is? Or didn't know at all? I'm always ready to talk to Internet users who still find tech talk too intimidating. Go ahead and write me .

As for the Journal's letter to my editor, I doubt that it tells anyone anything that they didn't already know. Despite that, it's hard to argue against sending it. If this past week's Internet virus attack tells us anything, it's that you can repeat something a million times and people still don't listen.

Blog-Oil Salesmen

You know those guys on TV who promise instant riches if you drop $19.95 to buy the book with all the secrets that "they" don't want you to know? You, sucker, are their secret.

Something similar is happening among bloggers, the San Jose Mercury News reported . It seems that some of them are scoring big by promising to sell corporations all the knowledge they need in order to harness the power of blogs. The story followed 21-year-old Matt Mullenweg as he "navigated the hallways of San Francisco's Palace Hotel, giving select corporate and other confidants a sneak peak [sic] at his latest offering: a special blogging software tool for companies.

"Mullenweg is just one of the stars of the Blog Business Summit being held in San Francisco through today. Public relations representatives of companies from Hewlett-Packard to Wells Fargo are here to meet Mullenweg and other blogging bigwigs to get tips on how to communicate with bloggers, and how best to get the word out about their products -- on their own blogs. ... Bloggers have a swagger to their stride these days. Just a few years ago, Mullenweg, of Texas, thought he was going to be a musician, but a fascination with computers sidetracked him. He soon found himself the lead developer of a fast-growing blogging software, called WordPress. He has since moved to San Francisco. Today is his big day. He's showing off the corporate version of his software, called WordPress.com, for the first time. It will allow companies to host the software on their own or WordPress servers -- giving employees the freedom to blog."

It's pathetic -- as well as amusing -- to watch representatives of multimillion-dollar corporations shell out their hard-earned cash to buy what amounts to bottles of freshly packaged air. The concepts behind blogging are not difficult to understand, nor is it difficult to throw one onto the Internet. I'd be ashamed to charge for my services so I'll offer them for free. Want a blog? Go read some. Do what they do. There's your Blog Business Summit.

USA Yesterday

Print media circulation is plummeting as more people rely on the Internet to get their news. Doesn't it seem like the perfect time to launch a glossy magazine about technology ?

That's what USA Today is doing, the Associated Press reported : "The new 80-page magazine, USA TODAY NOW Personal Technology, will launch Oct. 17 with at least 300,000 copies printed. It will be sold at newsstands across the country with a cover price of $4.95. The magazine will feature articles on shopping for electronics, how to set them up at home, Q&A articles with experts, polls, and editors' picks on key products."

If my biggest worry in the world were sustaining a publishing empire as more people decide they didn't need what I was printing, I'd do exactly the same thing.

There's a Mars Out Tonight

I thought I heard most of the Internet hoaxes out there, but the Scripps Howard News Service wrote about a new one. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran the story: "Fooled by an Internet hoax, many Americans are planning to grab lawn chairs and watch for Mars to be as big as the moon in the night sky Aug. 27. 'Share this with your children and grandchildren,' says the e-mail fueling the hoax. 'NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN.' At least one magazine, Backpacker, was tricked into publishing a brief news item about the event. Headlined 'Mars Spectacular,' it cited the Aug. 27 viewing in its September issue. Editors at the publication did not respond to questions about the article."

Here is the real deal, according to Scripps Howard: "It was actually Aug. 27, 2003, when Mars was at its closest distance to Earth in 60,000 years, said Todd Bayer of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The next such close encounter will be in 2287. Mars was bright in 2003, but it didn't look as big as a full moon, Bayer said. For that to occur, Mars would have to be millions of miles closer to Earth. 'That would be scary,' Bayer said."

August 27 happens to be remarkable for several other reasons. President Lyndon Johnson was born that day, as were Mother Teresa, Tuesday Weld (whoo-hoo!), Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens ... and yours truly. That's no joke.

Send links and comments to robertDOTmacmillanATwashingtonpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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