Trustworthy Mail vs. Fake Mail
It is increasingly difficult to distinguish real mail from fake mail, or even real phone calls from fake phone calls. The more sophisticated artificial intelligence becomes, the easier we are to be fooled. Still, this does not mean that there are not preventative measures we can take to better protect ourselves from spam, phishing scams, or just general annoyances. This page is dedicated to showing students how to avoid these problems with email, postal mail, and telephone calls.
How to avoid spam and phishing scams on email
While there are no ways to avoid this all entirely without a very sophisticated firewall, we can still take steps to build up our own personal resiliency and mental firewall. Here are some things you can look out for when you are looking through your emails:
Look at the email address of the sender before opening the email.
Companies that are sending you emails will send emails from their company “domain.” This means, for example, if you were to see an email from someone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) but their email came from “@gmail.com,” then you would know it is fake; the IRS would be using a “@irs.gov” email domain. Other examples might include “@walmart.com” or “@wellsfargo.com” or “@ircnoco.org”
If you are expecting email from a government agency, the domain will be the name of the agency with a .gov after it. If you expect an email from a nonprofit, then the domain will be the organization’s name followed by .org at the end. A school will have .edu at the end, and a business will have .com at the end.
Look at how the email greets you
This one is also not guaranteed, but it is usually a good indication of validity as well. For example, if your email begins with “Dear Valued Customer” or “Dear Sir/Madam” or something else vague, it might be fraudulent. Companies you have given permission to contact you will already have your name on file, and they will be greeting you by name when they reach out. Groups that do not have your personal information might be sending this email to everyone and just trying to get a few people to reply.
Are there lots of links in the email or other strange content?
If an email is full of spelling errors, that is your first sight hat the email is suspect. Secondly, if there are lots of links to take you to websites you have never heard of, that is likely another sign of something suspicious going on. Do not click on the links of suspicious emails, and certainly do not download any files from the email.
If the email is cited as “spam” by your email program
Thankfully, companies like Google or Yahoo are spending a lot of time working on algorithms to distinguish fake emails from real emails for you. If a message ends up in your spam folder automatically, that is usually a good indication that the email is suspect. This is not 100% accurate, but it is useful o have an active spam folder working with you!
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
One common form of spam is the promise of “easy money” or “just send me your bank account information and I’ll give you some of my money for helping me out.” A general rule of thumb for the internet is this: the internet is not your friend and it is not full of trustworthy people. That sounds sad, but it’s a good frame of mind to be in when you are new to this ecosystem. If you receive an email from someone promising you something that sounds really incredible and you feel lucky to have been randomly chosen, it is probably not real. Do not click on those links or give that person your personal information.
Avoiding “Junk Mail” in your post
Junk mail, like spam, can range from the annoying to the dangerous. Here are some of the ways you can avoid opening envelopes from junk mail senders.
If there is language on the envelope saying “Act now!” or “Special Offer!” then it is probably a sales pitch.
Much of the mail you will receive in your post will be an attempt to sell you a product. Sometimes these sales appeals do not come in the form of a catalog, though, but in the form of a standard envelope. If you see big, red letters indicating time sensitivity, then it may not be real. Open at your own risk!
Check the postage area for “presorted”
Pre-sorted mail is mail that is sent out in bulk. If, in the area where a stamp would usually go, there is a printed label saying “pre-sorted,” then it is likely coming from a sender who sends out lots of junk mail.
If there is printed language on the envelope that is meant to look like handwriting
Many times, spammers will use a print font that looks like handwriting to confuse the mail recipient. When we are in a rush, sometimes we will only open mail that looks like it is from a real person. Spammers use this t their advantage! Be sure to check if the handwriting looks real or printed.
Avoiding Spam Phone Calls
Spam phone calls are on the rise; if you own a phone, it is almost unavoidable that you will receive spam calls. Here are some ways you can save yourself time in avoiding those calls. As a general rule of thumb, you can let any call go to voicemail and then see what the call was by checking the message (if the caller leaves one) after.
If the caller-identification shows up as “unknown number”
Most phones today come with some sort of caller identification system built in. When you receive a call, the phone will either display a name of someone in your contact list, or it will show a telephone number. If, however, the word “unknown number” shows up, it is likely spam or unsafe. Let this call go to voicemail.
A number you do not recognize or an area code you do not recognize.
Calls from Northern Colorado will have a (970) area code before the number, and calls from Denver will have either (720) or (303) before the number. Other area codes that you do not recognize will likely be spam calls — let these go to voicemail. If, however, you receive a call from an unrecognized number within one of these area codes, you can still let the call go to voicemail to be safe. If you are expecting a call from someone whom you know but that you do not have the phone number for, then it might be that person.
If the caller is asking for personal information (social security number, credit card number, name, date of birth, etc)
There are very few authentic calls where you will need to be giving out this kind of personal information to the person on the other end of the phone. If you do not know for certain whom you are speaking with on the other end of the call, do not share personal information. Even if the caller on the other end is from a company or number you recognize, it might be useful to ask for why they need that information or if that information is optional.
If the person on the other end is actually a robot or an automated voice
Distinguishing between real and fake voices on the phone might be hard if you do not speak English fluently. One of the ways to know if the voice on the other end is real or not is to ask plainly “please say yes or no to this question: are you a robot?” Many fake machines will expect this question, but they will not give you a direct “yes” or “no” answer. Instead, the robot will say something like, “I promise this is a perfectly real offer” and try to divert the question back to what they are trying to sell you. If this happens, just hang up.