- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2003

I almost fell for it: an e-mail message had arrived, purportedly from Comcast, my cable TV and Internet supplier. They wanted to verify my identity and needed my bank-card number.

Fair enough, I thought, this sort of thing is not unusual for companies, and I followed the link from the e-mail to a Web page form that mimicked the “look and feel” of a real, live Comcast Web page. I began filling in the necessary information, hoping to complete the task quickly and get back to work, comforted by an assurance that my account wouldn’t be charged; this was for identification purposes only.

Then my blood ran cold. The “form” asked me for the personal identification number, or PIN, that I use at a cash machine, as well as for the name of my bank. Not only would no legitimate company ask for such information, it’s the kind of data you should never, ever give out. A valid company doesn’t need your PIN to process a charge, and as long as the account number is valid, they don’t need your bank’s name; there are other ways of finding that out, if needed.

I quickly closed the Web page — without clicking the “submit” button — and sent an e-mail to Comcast’s media relations agency. In hours, I had my answer: the e-mail was a an example of “phishing,” the fraudulent attempt to garner financial information from unsuspecting consumers. The Web page was blocked and authorities were contacted to investigate. One hopes criminal charges would result.

Knowing what should — and shouldn’t — be asked on a form by an online merchant is one way of keeping yourself safe online. I have shopped for many years online without incident or problem. Most online companies such as Amazon.com, Hotwire.com, L.L. Bean, Lands’ and others are responsible corporate citizens who zealously guard user privacy and customer data.

But since there are some bad actors out there, you need to be aware and be careful. The Federal Trade Commission has a section on its Web site devoted to staying safe online. It’s worth checking out (www.ftc.gov).

Blocking spam is another good idea. The less “static” in the form of prescriptions-by-Internet e-mail you get, the easier it is to both concentrate on mail that has a legitimate claim on your attention and to spot those questionable items that should be reported to your service provider and other authorities. A personal favorite is “Spamfire,” available for both Macintosh and Windows computers. Details on available versions of the programs can be found at www.matterform.com.

Symantec Corp., long a leader in data security products, has new versions of its Norton-branded products such as Norton Anti-Virus, Internet Security and Personal Firewall. There are bundles of these products, which can cut the total cost a bit. Often such bundles can be found for even less money at warehouse clubs and other stores.

Another plus can be found in the latest versions of e-mail programs such as Microsoft Outlook for Windows, Entourage for Mac and Apple Computer’s Mail.app. Each of these programs flag spam for you, and can even relegate such items to a separate file. It’s also encouraging that some Internet providers, notably AOL and EarthLink, are working to block such e-mail. And, Comcast deserves a compliment for moving quickly against the apparent criminal who tried to get my information.

E-mail MarkKel@aol.com or visit www.kellner.us.

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