Much of my life is automated via the Internet. I do my work, pay my bills and buy things online. Shoot, I haven’t been inside a bank in two years because all this is done over the ‘net. I even have an account with one bank that operates completely online, without a brick-and-mortar branch within sight.
This is great in most circumstances but it sure leaves me open to all sorts of security glitches.
If you’re reading this on your computer, you may be in that same boat. Of course you have an Internet connection. You might buy things online, pay your bills through the Internet or even govern your whole life through a coaxial cable or wifi connection. It’s great, it’s convenient, and sometimes it’s dangerous.
I received more confirmation of this danger the other day when I checked my email. It’s allegedly from PayPal, and it carries all sorts of dire warnings.
The email that set stuff off
Here’s the note, in its entirety but with the account ID deleted. Other than that, I kept the capitalization and spacing (this part’s important) just as you see it here:
Your account has been limited Paypal ID PP-xxx-xxx-xxx
Identity issue PP-xxx-xxx-xxx
Please complete the attached form to verify your Profile information and restore your account access.
Personal Information Profile
Make sure you enter the information accurately, and according to the formats required.
Fill in all the required fields.
Dear customer ,
As part of our efforts to provide a safe and secure environment for the online community, we regularly screen account activity. Our review of your account has identified an issue regarding its safe use. We have placed a restriction on your account as a precaution.
To lift the restriction we will require some further information from you.
If, once we review your further information and we’re convinced that the use of your account does not present a safety risk to our service and customers, we’ll be happy to reinstate your account.
We have sent you an attachment which contains all the necessary steps in order to restore your account access. Download and open it in your browser. After we have gathered the necessary information, you will regain full access to your account.
We thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.
PayPal Review Department.
There’s an attached document that came with this note.
Did I download and open it?
Uhh, noooo … forgive this journalistic lapse, but I’m really not as dumb as I look.
Things that made me go h’mmm …
There were a couple of red flags that went up right away.
One of those red flags was the address this email went to. I have six email addresses, and two of them (my Gmail addresses) are attached to my PayPal account. But this email went to two addresses that have nothing to do with PayPal, and both are under my ericpulsifer.com web domain.
Now understand the importance of this. PayPal uses your associated email address to make all transactions. That means if you use that service and want to send me money (hint hint) you’ll send it through the email address associated with it.
(So if you’re feeling generous, crank up your PayPal and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure and send it in small unmarked bills and I’ll be real happy.)
All my PayPal communications go through that one Gmail address. So to receive this email through one of my business (non-Gmail) addresses gives me pause right away.
This gets really suspicious when I get simultaneous emails to different boxes under the same domain name.
While the email’s reported sender is Service@PayPal.com (with the capitalization just as you see it here), the actual email address is email@example.com. Now, how suspicious is that?
I checked my PayPal account and found nothing even resembling the account ID number listed in the email. I do have a merchant ID number, but it’s not even close. Could be that I’m not looking in the right place, but I don’t think so. Paypal’s ID is basically your email address. Got that?
After receiving the email I checked my PayPal account right away. Everything was copacetic. I was able to access it like I always have, without restrictions. So you know the sender was trying to baffle me with BS.
Chasing the story
Being the troublemaker that I am, I ran a Google search using the phrase “paypal restore account information email” and man, did I get a pantload of results. None of them carried good news either, but it was highly educational.
Just from looking at the first page of the search results, I saw this scam has been kicking around since 2006.
According to consumerfraudreporting.com, PayPal will never send you an email without putting your name on it. In other words it will be “Dear Eric Pulsifer,” not “Dear customer.” And you can bet they won’t leave a space between “customer” and the comma in the greeting; this just tells me it’s just some guy sending these emails from some basement somewhere.
Oh, yes. According to my research, PayPal doesn’t send attachments. I know I’ve never seen one from them. Forget it.
I checked on the PayPal community forum, and found some more revealing information. Several users reported similar emails and the forum administrator, who identifies himself as PayPal_Andy (I’ll assume he’s an employee) wrote this:
First, I’d recommend running a virus scan just to make sure you didn’t pick up anything unsavory when you clicked there. If everything’s fine (or once it is), I would recommend going to PayPal and changing your password and security questions through the ‘Profile’ link. Make sure this password is brand new and you haven’t used it anywhere else and you should be fine. Just keep an eye on your PayPal account for any unauthorized charges, and if you see any, let us know ASAP.
Sound advice. It’s common sense, but you can ride with the assumption that the phisherman probably snagged some of your information before sending that email. Change your password immediately just to make sure.
By the way, Andy posted his response in August 2011, so you know this scam is an oldie but goodie. But phishers and other off-brand types wanting to access your valuable information tend to stick with a winning formula.
If you get that email …
Generally, if you have an issue with access to your PayPal account, you can do all the fixing through the actual site. They have a “resolution center” where you may or may not get immediate answers, but it’s sure a lot safer than downloading/filling out an attached form you got from some random person and sending it via email.
Consumerfraudreporting.org suggests forwarding any fraudulent PayPal email to firstname.lastname@example.org — which I just did as I was researching and writing this piece. Here’s what I wrote:
I received this at two separate email addresses under the same domain, and neither one is associated with my PayPal account. Smelled a rat immediately and didn’t bother to open the attachment, so I won’t pass that part along to you.
Thought you might like to know, especially if you’re counting.
So far, no response. But let the record reflect I went through proper channels.
Despite PayPal’s somewhat squirelly reputation (every year it finds itself in the running for the most evil company by the Consumerist website), I’ve never had a problem with them. Never. I once had to send some paperwork to prove I was who I said I was, but everything was resolved quickly by phone after that. While that was inconvenient, I have to give them brownie points for taking that security step.
I also have my account set up to send me an email and a text message when I make a transaction, and this has served me well. I found out within seconds when a restaurant tried to charge my PayPal debit card twice for a meal, so after I complained to the restaurant management, PayPal fixed things on their end without me having to prompt them. I might have scared the PP out of everyone involved, but somebody had to do it.
So from my perspective I have nothing bad to say about PayPal’s customer service. They’ve always been responsive and went that extra mile with me. Maybe I’m just Texas-lucky here, but I’ll take it.
The upshot of this whole mess is, if you receive this kind of note from PayPal, don’t panic. Don’t click on any attachments because it’s not from them and it’s probably malware anyway. And if you a) get it in an email box that’s not associated with your PayPal account or b) you don’t even have a PayPal account — that’s been reported too — then you know someone just tried to pull a fast one on you.
Enjoy your computers. Keep your online experiences fun and/or profitable. Just watch out for the phishing holes; there are sharks aplenty in there.
(For more information on protecting your computer and your information, be sure and check out my sidebar here. I even covered smartphones here, including my favorite 99-cent hack that may keep you from losing your phone.)