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What is phishing?

The crime's gentle cousin is associated with a quiet stream-side hobby but there are similarities. In both instances, bait is used to fool a target into giving up something of value. A fish snaps at a worm and loses a life just as email recipients are lured into opening messages that can cause serious financial damage.

Phishing is a particular form of identity theft, a non-violent white collar crime. Milwaukee victims are duped into turning over identifying information to others who use the data for financial gain. The techniques used to extract information are as varied as a "phisher's" imagination.

Victims may receive authentic-looking emails that declare recipients must respond to a bank or credit account emergency. The danger message encourages the recipient to take action to correct a fabricated problem like overdue taxes, a bank computer glitch or even an account hacking attack. In some cases, the bait used is time-sensitive, fake lottery winnings or the promise of an inheritance from a long-lost, unfamiliar relative.

The alarmed or excited target responds by voluntarily supplying confidential information. Phishing scams often lure victims into clicking on links that lead to websites that appear legitimate but aren't. "Pharming" is a form of a phishing that uses surreptitiously implanted malicious software or a virus to gain control over someone else's computer.

Computer users are advised never to open unfamiliar email attachments or share identifying information on pop-up screens, which sometimes appear over an a real company's website. Contact the creditor, lender or government agency by phone to verify there's a real problem.

Wisconsin laws don't specifically prohibit phishing. However, unauthorized use of an individual's personal identifying information is a serious crime.

Individuals accused of identity theft are urged to contact an attorney as soon as possible. A criminal defense lawyer can help defendants avoid self-incrimination and pursue actions to reduce or eliminate charges and penalties.

Source: Fraud.org, "Phishing," accessed July 24, 2015

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