One night, not so very long ago, I got a scam email that reminded me how few people actually pay attention to these things. It’s funny, but we’re all pretty lazy about these scams. You rarely get them from your real banks and money places anymore, or they’re very obviously not real, so you ignore them. Far more people fall for cold-calls on their cell, you know, like ‘This is Mary from Cardmember Services, calling about…’ And I always just hang up. But with so many emails, a lot of us blindly follow them. We click a link, we go to the site, and we don’t think.
This not thinking lead to a few WordPress developers being phished. This is not being ‘hacked’, this is a simple ‘You accidentally gave someone your password’ type mistake. While sites do the best they can to protect you from yourself, we can’t stop you from posting with your real name and not your handle (someone did this recently and asked me to remove the post, which I did), and we can’t stop you from not paying attention.
So we repeat this over and over again. Read the email, look at the site you end up on, use your brain.
Here was the email I got (one of three copies, from two separate email addresses):
Dear WordPress Plugin Developer,
Unfortunately, a plugin you are hosting has been temporarily removed from the WordPress repository. We’are going to manually review your plugin because it has been reported for violating our Terms of Service. If your plugin is not approved by this review then your plugin will be permanently removed from the WordPress repository.
You can check if your plugin has been approved or rejected at
Four things were wrong with this.
- The email did not come from email@example.com – the only official email for plugin yanks.
- The email didn’t come from someone I know on the pluginrepo ‘team.’
- None of my friends who work for WP poked me directly (and I’m fairly sure Otto, Nacin or Mark would have).
- The email source showed the wrong URL.
I quickly did a few checks on the email source, traced it back, verified it wasn’t WordPress, posted on the forums, and alerted the masses. Because ignorance is where this sort of thing festers. I’m a little impressed, though, since I’ve not seen a phishing attempt aimed at WordPress like this before.
Clearly it’s time to go over a quick reminder about what phishing is, it’s goals, and how it works.
Phishing is when you try to get someone else’s login credentials by mimicking a real site, so you can log in as them and do naughty things. It works by having people not pay attention to a URL when they go to a site. PayPal was an early hit on this, and they finally said “We will never send you an auto-login link or a link to our site in our emails. Just go to paypal.com and log in.” I don’t know if they still do it, but it was a very smart idea.
Too often we blindly trust our emails. The email appears to come from our bank? We click the link, log in, and … hey, it didn’t work? Banks are a huge target for this, and as I work for one, I’m very familiar with making sure we’re not phished. I mean, an email like this looks pretty safe right?
That link, if you’d clicked on it, would take you to a fake site. Now some of those fake sites are smart, and when you enter your ID and password, will redirect you to the real site’s bad password page! That would make you think you only typoed, which happens to all of us.
You may have noticed that most banks and money-type places have you enter your username and then take you to a page with a picture and a passphrase. As long as those are yours, you know you’re on the right site. That helps take care of a lot of attempts, but when you’re faced with something like a phishing attempt on WordPress, there’s less security because there’s less at stake. A bank can make it annoying and inconvenient to log in and get your money and you’ll put up with it because, well, it’s your money. You’ll put up with a lot to get to your money.
But if you have to jump through the same hoops to log in to a forum, or check in code to open source, you’d probably walk away. This is a complicated problem, trying to balance out the needs of the many and the protection of all. I’m not going to delve into possible answers, since they’re always going to be specific to your community.
Also, you can usually easily spot the fake emails. Here’s one I got today:
This came from “Delta Air Lines – firstname.lastname@example.org” which looks ‘legitish’, but as soon as you look at the email body, it seems weird. No real airline sends out your tickets in a ZIP file for one. Without looking any further, I know this is fake and I can delete it. But what if they’d sent a link? Would I have clicked on it? Again, no, since I’ve only been to Newark twice in my life, and I know I’m not going any time soon, but that’s not the point. The point is the email would have been less off if there’d been a link. If I’d really been concerned, I would have looked at the email headers, but before we jump into that, let’s review what you can do!
The rules to not be phished:
- Look at the URL before you enter your password and ID.
- Copy and paste those URLs, never click.
- If the email looks ‘off,’ don’t click.
- If there’s an attachment and there isn’t normally, delete the email.
That’s really the best you can do for most people. The rest of us, though, can go the extra level. When you get that weird email, the one that looks just a little off and hits your spider sense, view the email source, which looks like this:(This is the actual header from the phising email, by the way. You can see the whole thing here)
Return-path: Envelope-to: email@example.com Delivery-date: Sat, 24 Mar 2012 18:14:57 -0500 Received: from blu0-omc4-s14.blu0.hotmail.com ([22.214.171.124]:4132) by gamera.ipstenu.org with esmtp (Exim 4.77) (envelope-from ) id 1SBaAh-0001wn-Sk for firstname.lastname@example.org; Sat, 24 Mar 2012 18:14:56 -0500 Received: from BLU0-SMTP348 ([126.96.36.199]) by blu0-omc4-s14.blu0.hotmail.com with Microsoft SMTPSVC(6.0.3790.4675); Sat, 24 Mar 2012 16:14:54 -0700
By the way, notice how this came from Hotmail? 1990 called, it wants Nirvana back. WordPress emails don’t come from Hotmail, and I really hope that I’m not about to get a comment from someone at Automattic about how they still use it. Hotmail is like an AOL account. You’re not old school, you’re living in the icky past.
Now in that email, once you have the raw source, you scroll down to the body of the email and see this:
<HTML><HEAD> <META name=GENERATOR content="MSHTML 8.00.7601.17744"></HEAD> <BODY> <P>Dear WordPress Plugin Developer,</P> <P>Unfortunately, a plugin you are hosting has been temporarily removed from&nbsp;the WordPress repository. We&nbsp;are going to manually review your&nbsp;plugin because it has been reported for violating our Terms of Service. If your plugin does not get approved then it will be permanently removed from the WordPress repository.</P> <P>You can check if your plugin has been approved or rejected at</P> <P><A href="http://wordpresss.comule.com/bb-login.php">http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/my-plugins-status/</A> </P> <P>&nbsp;</P></BODY></HTML>
I don’t know about you, but something’s fishy in that email. comule.com has nothing to do with WordPress, we have a winner.
How do you see your raw source? For most email apps, select the message, go to the view menu and look for ‘message’ or ‘message source.’ If there are further options, like in mail.app, you want ‘Raw Source.’ Outlook has it under options, I believe. Once you get that view, just take the time to look at the ‘content’ of the email. If you’re extra paranoid, you can even turn off your email’s ability to automatically render HTML, so you’d see that right away (I actually no longer do that because of the values in HTML emails).
Now you know how to protect yourself just a little bit more. What are your best anti-phish-tips?