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Don’t Take the Bait

Irony is a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.  So when I got a phone call asking to speak with Bob Siegel about his room for the upcoming IAPP Summit, I was surprised by the ironic situation I was faced with.  After all, one would expect that an event specifically about privacy would not be dealing with issues like phishing.

Phishing is the act of sending emails or making calls trying to get PII while posing as someone you are not.  You may be familiar with individuals that call you around tax season, claiming to from the IRS and that they have a warrant for your arrest unless you pay a large sum of back taxes.  If you try to dig deeper, get more information, suddenly the story falls apart and it is proven to be scam.  This is what we saw.

The Line is Cast

So there I was, sitting in my office when my phone rings.  A man’s voice with a thick accent, one I could not identify, starts telling me about how he wants to help us get a lower rate on our hotel for the 2016 IAPP Summit.  He mentions the Georgetown Marriott, which is the wrong hotel and I get suspicious.  I give them Bob’s extension and say he isn’t available, call next week.  Afterwards, Bob calls me and we agree to let the IAPP personnel know what happened.  We suspect phishing or social engineering.

I left a voice mail for a contact at the IAPP, explaining what happened, and received an email back that I was not the only one reporting such an incident.  This isn’t hard to believe, since other exhibitors dealt with this same call.   The list of presenters is on the IAPP’s site, so getting their information, such as company name and phone number, is only a few clicks away.  Bob is listed as the CEO and Founder of Privacy Ref, so going to gets our phone number right away.  All general calls go to me though.  Suddenly, it all makes sense how this scam works.

They have a plausible story, working with the hotels to adjust rates, they have the list of contacts, the IAPP exhibitors, and all of this is public information since the IAPP has to let attendees know who is presenting and where the event is to get people interested in attending.  These phishers are counting on you to panic and give up data, like credit card information, in the heat of the moment, compromising your privacy.  How do you know this is a scam though?

Not Getting Hooked

First off, never lose your cool.  Nothing is ever solved by panicking, but asking questions and getting more information can prove if something is scam or legitimate issue.  In this case, I did not have to ask questions since the phishing caller used the wrong hotel name.  If you get called and asked for any kind of credit card or similar sensitive information, ask questions.  Why do you need this?  Why can you not look it up yourself?  Can you tell me something to prove this is legitimate?  The last question is most important.  If someone says they are from the IRS and you owe back taxes, they should be able to tell you how much you paid on your last return, your current address, or where you worked last.  All of this is on your returns.  Most importantly, if it sounds too good to be true or completely outlandish, it probably is.  If someone from the government has a warrant for you, they are not going to call, they will show up with the police.

Just remember, businesses can help protect customers by having rules that are widely available and easily accessible to customers.  If you let customers know you will never ask for information in an email, you will help prevent email based phishing.  Calls can be difficult to predict, but if you set up standard protocols to handle calls, customers will know what is going on and be better able to detect a scam.