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Why will your local IT Department never ask for your username and password?

XKCD Comic

Username

Your local IT department setup your account. They know your username. They can look it up if they don’t. It’s often a combination of first and last names. Perhaps there’s a number thrown in. Or perhaps it’s a series of numbers.

No matter what it is, your IT department knows it.

Password

Never Give Anyone Your Password Over Email

Your IT department doesn’t know your password. They have no way to look up your password. But you know what they can do, reset your password.

IT will never ask you for your username and password. If they really need it, they can look up one and reset the other. And resetting a customer’s password without their permission or knowledge is a huge breach of security and trust and will lead to that person getting fired or possibly worse.

What is Phishing?

According to Dictionary.com, Phishing is…

to try to obtain financial or other confidential information from Internet users, typically by sending an e-mail that looks as if it is from a legitimate organization , usually a financial institution, but contains a link to a fake Web site that replicates the real one.

Basically, it is someone trying to gain information from you by pretending to be something else. The attackers will spoof your bank web site, your employer, local IT department or an email from a friend or loved one.

Examples of phishing emails

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a larger than usual amount of phishing emails. I have included a couple of samples below with the links removed. After each message, I’ll make a note of why this is a fake message and what to look out for.

From: “Hogan, Judith”
Date: February 11, 2013, 11:14:15 AM EST
Subject: Security Update
There has been an automatic security update on your [email address](LINK REMOVED). To complete update, you are to click here.
Please note that you have within 24 hours to complete this update because you might lose access to your Email Box

First, check who the sender is. Does this person work in your company. Do they have the same Company.com email address? Have you heard of them before or the company they work for?

In this case, poor Judith Hogan at Rochester.edu is our sender. She does not work for the same organization where this email was sent to. She has most likely had her account compromised and it being used by the attackers. Judith is not trying to get access to your account. She is another victim of phishing or another attack that has compromised her account. She is not after your information. She is merely the victim.

Second, the link for “email address” went to a page at hpage.com. Hpage.com is not your local IT department.

From: National Institute of Health <2254576378@qq.com>
Date: Sat, 2 Feb 2013 04:27:06 -0500
Subject: Important Notification

Dear Subscriber, All NIHMAIL users must upgrade their account on or
before 4th February 2013 . For easy upgrade, Click
http://[REMOVED].my3gb.com and fill out your correct account details.
Webmail Administrator

First, the From line actually has the correct organization on it. However, a quick check of the email address goes to qq.com. NIH is a government entity and uses a NIH.gov domain. They would never direct customers to qq.com for any reason.

Second, Dear Subscriber is a giveaway. If this really were your employer emailing you, they know who you are. They would address you by first or last name. It would not be something so generic as Subscriber.

Third, The IT department plans and executes upgrades. Your IT department would never ask you to click anything to upgrade your account. That is part of the job of your IT techs. To manage, upgrade and control the email servers and email accounts. If there is an upgrade happening, they will tell you about it.

Finally, IT will never, ever, ever ask for your credentials. The IT department setup your email account. They already know what your username is. And while they don’t know your password, they do have the power to reset it. If you’ve ever forgotten your password and call your Help Desk, they can reset your password so they’ll never need to ask you for it. Your IT Department will never ask for your username and password.

Often times, attackers will threaten a customer with their data or email being deleted to scare them into compliance.

From: “Warren, Frank”
Date: Mon, 26 Nov 2012 07:19:27 -0500
Subject: Security Update

There has been an automatic security update on your email address. Click here to complete update
Please note that you have within 24 hours to complete this update because you might lose access to your Email Box.

First, Frank Warren @ BP.com doesn’t work for your company most likely.

Second, IT would never conduct an automatic update without first announcing it. And if there was an update performed, no one would need to click a link. They are the IT department. When they perform an upgrade, your account is upgraded. Done. There is no step 2.

Third, sporadic capitalization such as Email Box and missing periods in sentences are key indicators of phishing. Professional emails sent from your IT department will use proper grammar and punctuation.

From: NIH EMAIL WEB ACCESS
Subject: TERMINATION OF ACCOUNT

Dear NIH Account User,

Due to the congestion in all NIH users
accounts you needs toupdate your account with
our released F-Secure Internet Security 2013.
Newversion of a better resource spam and viruses.

If you have not upgraded your account, click reply
and fill in the columnsbelow to send it back so we can
update our database account immediately.
Failure to update will process your NIH
account beingtemporarily blocked or suspended
from our network and may not be able to
receive or send e-mail due to the update.

First, your company knows who you are and would address you by name.
Second, the missing spaces between words and poor grammar such as better resource spam and viruses means phishing. That last line doesn’t even make sense when you read it.
Third, the IT department upgrades your email. It doesn’t access you to click a link *or else.** IT doesn’t threaten customers.

From: NIH User
Subject: Blank

Due to recent suspicious activities in your web-mail account and high amount of Spam mails we receive daily. you account have been blocked and made inactive to protect you, so to activate and unblock your account before routine deletion by our servers, To upgradeyour webmail please click (link withheld)

please fill all details to unblock your account instantly Thank you.

First, the subject line would not be blank.
Second, if your account has been blocked, you would not be receiving this email because your account has been blocked.
Third, poor grammar, lack of capitalization and asking to click a link is a sure sign of phishing.
Fourth, filling information into a web site will not unblock your account. A call to your help desk will.

I hope these examples and explanations have been helpful to better understand phishing and the ways attackers try to gain access to your email. Often times, customers will say, “I have nothing in my email that is important or sensitive.”

However, when a customer’s email account is compromised so is access to anything else they have. Any network drives are also vulnerable. VPN access or remote access are now vulnerable.

If the customer works with sensitive data such as HR or Financial information, access to those accounts are now vulnerable too. Think of all the things that use a password reset sent to an email address to change a password.

If an attacker has access to your email account, they potentially have access to anything that email address connects to. Do you use it for Facebook, Twitter, your own web site, Amazon, Paypal, or your bank?

All of those things could be compromised because the attacker is able to reset those emails with your email address. For a worst case scenario, the story of Mat Honan getting his computer and phone deleted because an attacker was able to gain access to his account.

This is a worst case scenario. However, the same security threats exist if an attacker gains access to your email account. Attackers aren’t just after your work email accounts either.

Take a look through your Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo email account. What social media sites do you use that email for? Does your bank send email there? How about credit cards? If an attacker gains access to that account, they have anything you use that email address for. In addition to being able to email your friends, family and colleagues from your account in an attempt to gain access to their accounts too.

The best weapon against phishing and other attacks is to use common sense. If you have a question about something you’ve received email the sender back and ask them about it. If you receive a suspicious email at work. Call your help desk and ask about it.

The best defense is to use common sense and think about what you’ve received and if it makes sense. How can you easily detect a phishing attack?

  1. Check the sender. Do they work for your company? Is the email address the same as the sender name?
  2. Are there weird misspellings, poor grammar and a lack of basic punctuation? Does your local IT department send you emails like this? Does your brother, mother or colleague?
  3. Is there a link in the email? Don’t click it. If you move your mouse over it and wait a couple of seconds, it will show the link where it’s going to take you. If it’s a weird-looking link. Don’t click it.
  4. If your suspicious, delete the email. If it was something important, the sender will contact you again or in another way.
  5. Remember, the IT department manages your email account. They will never ask for your credentials or to click a link for any reason. They have the power to do whatever they need to do to upgrade, manage or migrate your email. That’s their job.

Everything you never knew you wanted to know about Entourage

Microsoft Entourage is not Outlook for Mac. There is now an Outlook for Mac included in the 2011 release of Microsoft Office.

However, prior to that Entourage was the only option for supporting Exchange servers and their email/calendar/contacts syncing and sharing. 1

Entourage is not without its problems and as any experienced Mac users or technicians know, Entourage has a duo of fatal flaws.

The Problems with Entourage

It keeps everything in one database file.

Where is my database file?

Entourage stores the file inside the Documents folders in a folder called Microsoft User Data/Office 2008 Identities. There should be a folder called Main Identity by default. Inside it, there is a file called “database.”

What exactly is in the database file?

Your rules, mailing lists, signatures, messages, data, schedules, contacts, tasks, notes, calendar are in your database.

Why is that bad?

The problem with this is the file will continue to grow and become unstable. How big can the database get before it becomes unstable? The Entourage 2004 & 2008 database has no size limit, just a limit to the number of items in the Entourage database: 2 million database items.

Due to the way the database handles messages, the limit is about 1 million email messages. This may seem like a lot but I’ve seen databases going back a decade or more that can contain far more than this.

How can I tell if my database is corrupted?

The signs of database corruption are:
* Problems viewing and opening items
* Big grey blank of about 3-4 lines in Inbox which if I click on it, freezes the screen and or makes app close down
* Blank E-mails with no text
* Messages that won’t delete
* Crash and freeze when opening

Why not archive messages and old data out of the Entourage to keep the database file small and stable? This brings me to the second flaw in Entourage.

There is no way to Auto Archiving for messages.

Outlook users have enjoyed the ability to automatically archive their messages since at least Outlook ’97, Entourage never gained parity.

How do I auto-archive my messages?

You can’t. 2

How do I manually archive my messages?

There are a few ways to archive Entourage data but none of them are easy and some of them are downright hostile.

In order to back up your Entourage database you must quit all Microsoft applications.

  • This means Entourage, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, My Day, Office Reminders, Microsoft Database daemon and Messenger must be closed before you can begin and remain closed until the process is complete.

Now that all of those applications are closed and remain closed for the duration of your backup, here are the choices to back up.

  1. Create an MBOX file
    This is best for backing up a single folder as it will not keep the file structure of sub folders. Ideally, to use this method, create a rule to move all the items to archive into a single folder.
    To create the MBOX file simply drag the folder from Entourage to your desktop. Depending on the size of the folder, this can take a long time so be patient.
    When it’s done, you will have a file you can drag back into Entourage or open with a text editor.

  2. Create an Entourage Archive (rge file)
    The benefit to the rge file is that it can export multiple folders with sub folders along with calendar items, contacts, notes and tasks.
    Once you’ve exported your rge file, you can import it back into Entourage and it will show up with folder structure intact. This is particularly helpful if you’re going to make a separate identity to keep your archives.

  3. Create a separate identity.
    The new identity will be empty upon creation. Since this identity is not for sending receiving email, I would recommend not setting up an email account with it. Instead, this is the perfect place to import the rge or mbox file you exported.
    Setting up a live email account in this identity will lead to the same problem as the main identity. All of the email on the server will still take up space in your database and lead to instability.
    Think of this second identity as your backup. This is your attic where you keep the holiday decorations. You don’t visit it everyday but it’s there when you need it.
    Over time, it would be good to create multiple identities to keep you ever-growing archive of email. Separating the identities by year should be more than enough to keep everything tidy and stable.

  4. Time Machine other backup software
    Using Time Machine or another backup software such as SuperDuper! you can keep backup copies of your database in the event it become irreparably unstable, you can restore it from an older copy.
    There is a series of scripts available which can make the process easier.

How can I keep Entourage happy and healthy?

The most important lesson in keeping a happy, healthy mailbox is delete your email. If you are never going to look at a message again, delete it. If you think you’ll need it later then archive it. If you need it for a project then tag or file or until the project ends, then delete or archive it.

I am as bad about this as anyone since I constantly have a flow of conversations about support calls, outage reports and other emails flying at me at all hours.

The solution I have found is to block off the last hour of a Friday each month and go through my email. By doing this monthly, I don’t allow the pile to grow too large. If it takes more than the hour I have scheduled then I may try to tidy my mailbox during the week or wait for the next scheduled Friday.
If one hour is not enough, take 90 minutes or am hour every other Friday. If Fridays are bad, pick a time when your schedule is usually lighter. A little time spent on keeping a tidy mailbox will save you from catastrophe down the road.

What if I can’t delete my email?

There are certain professions or government agencies which require retention of email. If your organization had such a policy, they should also have a backup of archive policy as well. Ask your local IT technician or call your Help Desk if you don’t know what they are.

If you have no policy for retention of email but want to keep it then develop a system for doing so. Archive it using a method I described above. If you have access to upgrade To Outlook, I highly recommend doing so. If your workplace offers a remote terminal setup where you could access the Windows version of Outlook and keep archived email there, that is also a good solution.

The point is that keeping these messages in Entourage will eventually lead to a database failure. If the database fails, you wot have to worry about your emails because they will all be gone.

Lets say this again. If your Entourage database fails, there is no recovery options for your emails.

Take the time to put a system in place and use it. Block out the time in your calendar now so you know to keep it clear. Setup reminders do you don’t have to remember it.

This truly is a case where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Further Reading


  1. Snow Leopard shipped with Exchange support in Mail.app, iCal and Address Book but required Exchange Server 2007 or later to run leaving Exchange Server 2003 with Entourage as the only option. 

  2. There are ways to archive semi-automatically but they all require third-party software and I’ll get to those later.