An employee at MacEwan University got an email in 2017 from someone claiming to be a construction contractor asking to change the account number where almost $12 million in payments were sent. A week later the actual contractor called asking when the payment would arrive. The email about the account number change was fake. Instead of going to the contractor, the payments were sent to accounts controlled by criminals.

Fake emails that try to get people to do things they wouldn’t normally do, such as send money, run dangerous programs or give out passwords, are known as phishing emails. Cybersecurity experts often blame the people who receive such messages for not noticing that the emails are fake.

As a cybersecurity researcher, I’ve found that most people are good at almost all of the skills that computer security experts use to notice fake emails in their inboxes. Making up the difference comes down to listening to your instincts.

How the pros do it

In earlier research, I found that when cybersecurity experts received a phishing email message, they, like most people, assumed the email was real. They initially took everything in the email at face value. They tried to figure out what the email was asking them to do, and how it related to things in their life.

As they read, they noticed small things that seemed off, or different from what would typically be in similar email messages. They noticed things like typos in a professional email, or the lack of typos…

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