Alerts Newsletter

Scam of the Month: Important Payroll Message

Example of Important Payroll Message Phish

This month, we’re focusing on a particularly tricky scam. This one isn’t tricky because it’s complex on its surface; it actually relies on simplicity and brevity to lure in its victims. This scam mimics an important notification to trick recipients into handing over sensitive login information. It contains many hallmarks of a typical phish, but it tries to sneak by your skepticism using a less is more strategy.

If you receive an email purporting to contain sensitive or personal information, it is always good to approach it with a heavy dose of skepticism. In this case, the message is about “Payroll.” Since it involves such a sensitive system with a clear connection to exploitation by attackers, it is always best to have a known and trusted strategy to check the claim’s authenticity. Instead of clicking any links in an email like this, the recipient could use to access their payroll information.

Example of Important Payroll Message Phish
  1. Using a ‘’ email address in the scam pictured above highlights the common tactic of wither spoofing a domain in a sender email or using a compromised account to send messages that phish other users within the institution.
  2. The message conveys a tone of urgency and concerns a key department or service. This particular department has clear connections to financial gains for the attacker.
  3. The recipient is encouraged to follow a link in an email, and that link does not go to the place it claims to go. Hovering over this link reveals it directs anyone who clicks it to a malicious site outside of the domain.
  4. The email contains a non-standard signature.

Guidance for Reporting Phishing

10 Phishing Safety Tips

  1. Don’t click. Instead of clicking on any link in a suspicious email, type in the URL, or do a search on for the relevant department or page. Even if a website and/or URL in an email looks real, criminals can mask its true destination.
  2. Be skeptical of urgent requests. Phishing messages often make urgent requests or demands. When you detect a tone of urgency, slow down and verify the authenticity of the sender and the request by using official channels, rather than the information provided by the sender.
  3. Watch out for grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes. Phishing messages are often poorly written. Common hallmarks of phishing are incorrect spelling, improper punctuation, and poor grammar. If you receive an email with these problems, it may be a phishing attempt. Double-check the email address of the sender, don’t follow any links and verify the authenticity of the request using official channels.
  4. Keep your information private. Never give out your passwords, credit card information, Social Security number, or other private information through email.
  5. Pick up the phone. If you have any reason to think that a department or organization really needs to hear from you, call them to verify any request for personal or sensitive information. Emails that say “urgent!”, use pressure tactics or prey on fear are especially suspect. Do an online search for a contact phone number or use the contact number published in the WUSTL directory.
  6. Use secure websites and pay attention to security prompts. Always check if you are on a secure website before giving out private information. You can determine whether a website is secure by looking for the “https:” rather than just “http:” in the Web address bar or for the small lock icon in the Internet browser. If your browser cannot validate the authenticity of the website’s security certificate, you will be prompted. This is frequently a telltale sign of fraud, and it would be a good time to pick up the phone or report a suspicious message.
  7. Keep track of your data. Regularly log onto your online accounts and make sure that all your transactions are legitimate.
  8. Reset any account passwords that may have been compromised.
  9. Know what’s happening. Visit the Office of Information Security page (  ) often and follow us on Twitter (  ) to get the latest WashU Information Security Alerts.
  10. Report it. If you are a victim of an email scam, report it to our office by emailing When you report a phishing attack, we will investigate it and if necessary, remove other instances of the attack from our systems. Reporting the attack will help protect others and our institution.

Additional Resources

Phishing | Office of Information Security | Washington University in St. Louis
Phishing 101 | Office of Information Security | Washington University in St. Louis

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