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Recognizing Phishing Attempts

PDF Poster of common phishing tactics.Email scams and phishing messages are types of electronic fraud that request recipients to disclose information or perform other potentially harmful actions on behalf of the sender.

These types of emails appear to come from reliable sources like Northwestern or your banking institution, and often contain urgent requests that require the recipient to provide sensitive information―passwords, account numbers, etc.―by either replying to the email directly or by entering this information on a bogus website.

In an effort to prevent email scams from reaching the University’s central email server Northwestern’s Email Defense System (EDS), powered by Proofpoint, blocks the majority of malicious messages from being distributed to the University community. However, malicious and junk email occasionally slips through this security net.

Click on the graphic to view an enlarged version of common phishing practices, and to print out an 11 x 17 poster.

Use Best Practices

The best defense against malicious email attempts is an educated user. When you receive any email requesting personally identifiable information, follow these best practices to protect yourself and the University:

Never reply to an unsolicited emails

Messages that asks for your personal information including requests for NetID passwords, Social Security Numbers, or requests for credit card information should not be trusted. Most institutions (Northwestern, your bank or credit card company, etc.) will not email you requesting this type of information.

Do not click on links directly from emails

Open a new browser and find the supposed institution’s website yourself through a search engine or URL bar. You can also bookmark the NU Validate pages to update or verify your NetID password.

Be alert of suspicious emails

Messages with suspicious, misspelled, or awkward language, or that reference non-existent Northwestern departments like "University Webmail Support" or the "Webmail Messaging Center" are examples of scam emails. Pay attention to unusual greetings or signatures from messages purporting to be from your contacts. Compare to the list of recent phishing email attempts collected and posted by Northwestern IT.

Delete messages that are confirmed to be phishing

If you confirm or recognize a message to be a phishing attempt, delete them from your "Inbox" and your "Deleted Items" folder to avoid accidentally accessing the Web sites within the bogus email.

Do not send your personal information

Never send personally identifiable information, such as passwords, credit card account numbers, and Social Security Numbers, through email.

Update software often

Regularly update and use antivirus and anti-spyware software, and your firewall. Be sure your applications and anti-virus software is the most current.

Always be cautious

Remember to always be cautious about opening any attachments or downloading any files from emails you receive, regardless of who sent them.

Other Types of Phishing

Phishing isn’t just for email anymore! Be aware of attacks through phone calls, texts, or other online messaging applications. Make sure you're on the lookout for these variants on the traditional, mass emailed phishing attack:

Spear phishing

This kind of attack involves often very well-crafted messages that come from what looks like a trusted VIP source, often in a hurry, targeting those who can conduct financial transactions on behalf of your organization (sometimes called "whaling").


Literally, phishing attacks via SMS, these scams attempt to trick users into supplying content or clicking on links in SMS messages on their mobile devices. Flaws in how caller ID and phone number verification work make this an increasingly popular attack that is hard to stop.


Voice phishing, these are calls from attackers claiming to be government agencies such as the IRS, software vendors like Microsoft, or services offering to help with benefits or credit card rates. Attackers will often appear to be calling from a local number close to yours. As with SMiShing, flaws in how caller ID and phone number verification work make this a dangerous attack vector.

Think You Spotted a Scam? Report It!

If you are unsure about the legitimacy of an email claiming to be from Northwestern, compare it to the recent list of attempts at Northwestern. If it is not listed, immediately forward the complete message with email message headers to

Remember,  Northwestern University will never ask for personally identifiable information.

If you believe you have responded to a malicious email, change your NetID password immediately and call the Northwestern IT Support Center at 847-49 1-4357 (1-HELP) to report the scam.

Last Updated: 1 May 2019

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