What Is a Phishing Attack?

By Jayden Andrews. February 13, 2020

In today’s increasingly digital world, cybercrime has become a powerful tool for bad actors looking to steal your information for commercial gains. One of the most successful, yet dangerous forms of cyberattacks is phishing. In fact, a majority of cyberattacks begin with a phishing email or call.

Due to its simplicity, phishing continues to be the most common avenue used by adversaries to take over accounts, steal passwords, and even get into systems without authorization. Naturally, phishing is a social engineering attack, so it can be hard to defend yourself against it. Moreover, it can occur through many channels, including email, telephone, in person, or even an advert on a web page.

In simple terms, phishing is any fraudulent activity that lures you into sharing personal data, such as passwords, logins, biometrics, or bank details with fraudsters. For instance, scammers and attackers may post malicious links on websites. Usually, when you click on these links, they will direct you to a fake website that mimics reputable organizations, such as banks. Sometimes, they may install malicious software on your system.

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So, How Do Phishing Scams Trap Victims?

As mentioned above, phishing attackers use several strategies to get hold of your valuable information. In most cases, they will send you suspicious emails or messages asking you to update or share information about your account. For instance, they can send you a message that convinces you to:

  • Open an attached document
  • Click on a link
  • Enter your login credentials into a malicious website that’s made to appear legitimate
  • Install malicious software on your device

Initially, these actors were using massive spam campaigns that indiscriminately target large groups of people. The main aim was to get as many people to download malicious content or click a link. However, the phishing scene is getting more advanced. Many hackers use smart tactics to get to even get into the HTTPs boundaries.

If you are not careful, you may fall for tricks set up by scammers. What confuses most victims is that the sites they are directed to always appear to belong to legitimate organizations. Once you get caught in the phish net, they will take over all your crucial data. A successful phishing attack can lead to identity theft, loss of intellectual property, loss of sensitive information like usernames and passwords, and theft of funds from client accounts. Sometimes, hackers may use your information to blackmail or embarrass you.

Even businesses are feeling the impact of phishing attacks. Despite having robust and more advanced defense technologies, the business community continues to experience an increase in phishing attacks. In fact, the number of attacks has doubled over the last five years. The reason is that phishing attackers usually exploit the weakest links in an organization’s defense system, so one human error could lead to massive loss of data.

Types of Phishing Attacks

The following at the most common forms of phishing attacks:

1. Spear-Phishing
Spear-phishing is a popular method used by cybercriminals to steal sensitive data. Their focus could be on a specific organization or individual. What it does is use your personal information for it to appear legitimate. So, where do they get this information?

Usually, hackers will turn to company websites and social media to research their potential victims. Once they have a clue about their target, they will start to curate personalized emails, and then include one or two malicious links or attachments.

2. Whaling
Whaling involves stealing information from high-level chosen targets. This type of phishing attack usually targets senior management, who may have crucial information about their organizations. In most cases, whaling emails are more sophisticated when compared to conventional phishing emails. For instance, an email could contain personalized information about a target organization and delivered in a more corporate tone. Due to the high level of return and the people involved, hackers often put a lot more effort and thought when crafting these emails. So, they are usually much harder to spot.

3. Vishing
Vishing is a type of phishing that involves using telephone calls to trick people into sharing their personal information. Of all the phishing types, vishing is the most human interactive one. In order to convince their targets to reveal their details, a fraudster will make a call through a spoofed ID that looks like it is coming from a legitimate organization. Apart from this, they also create a sense of urgency.

A typical scenario will involve a fraudster posing as a company employee who is calling to inquire about suspicious behavior on your account. So, once they gain your trust, they will then request you to divulge sensitive details, such as your PIN and passwords. These details will help them commit identity fraud.

4. Smishing
Smishing is a form of phishing attack that uses SMS messages to trick target people. It involves a fraudster sending a text message to the target person’s phone number and often has a call to action that requires a prompt response. Just like emails, text messages can be an effective way of convincing individuals to provide their sensitive information, such as their login credentials, bank details, and credit card details.

5. Clone Phishing
Clone phishing involves creating an identical email to a previously delivered legitimate email. The only difference between the two emails is that the manipulated email will always have malicious content. In most cases, the cloned email will look like it’s coming from the original sender, only that it is an updated version with malicious attachments or links.

How to Identify Phishing Emails?

While hackers can use telephone calls and text messages to launch attacks, email remains the most common avenue for phishing attacks. For this reason, you should know how to spot phishing emails. Check for these clues:

Mismatched URLs
One of the easiest ways of identifying suspicious emails is to check the validity of a URL. When you hover your mouse cursor over an email link, even without clicking it, the full hyperlinked address usually appears. If the URL is not the same as the address displayed, then definitely that’s a phishing email, even if the hyperlink looks legitimate.

Body Text URLs
Sometimes, emails contain URLs in the body. Usually, these box text URLs will lead you to where you would go, for instance, your bank or credit card company’s website. At first glance, the URL might look just fine, so you may not notice any suspicion. The danger comes in when you click on it. So, before clicking on box text URLs, hover your mouse cursor over the text, which will reveal the actual URL. If the URL doesn’t match with the text in the link, do not click on it.

Since phishing attack has become a big problem, many financial institutions no longer include URLs within the body of their emails, requesting you to click on a link. Most company emails will instruct you to log into your account via a separate browser window or tab.

The Email Address
Besides scrutinizing the sending email URLs, you also need to check at the email address. If you receive a business email at an email account you haven’t shared with that company, then that should raise your concern. For instance, you might receive a business email from PayPal at your work email address, yet you have never linked that email with your PayPal account. In this case, you can be pretty confident that it’s a phishing email.

Incorrect Capitalization and Misspellings
While you will hardly miss misspellings and incorrect capitalization, corporate usually maintain high standards in their communications. So, if you spot obvious incorrect capitalizations or misspelled words within the email, that’s a good sign that the mail is indeed coming from a phishing attacker.

Attachments
Sometimes, you may receive emails you weren’t expecting to include an attachment. If that is the case, you shouldn’t open that file. Instead, check through the content, email addresses, and the name of the document to identify any malicious intents. If you want to avoid any temptation to open the file, you should delete that email immediately.

Unexpected Correspondence
If you receive an email or a call informing you that you have won a lottery you did not enter, it is likely to be from a phishing attacker. Sometimes, they may request you to click on a link to redeem a prize. Generally, if an offer seems too good to be true, you should avoid it.

How to Defend Yourself against Phishing Attacks?

Scammers have found out that it is not always easy for humans to authenticate each other. Computers systems, too, may not immediately authenticate some communications. It usually takes a significant amount of time to validate cryptographic signatures schemes. So, to mitigate these challenges, you need to deal with each phishing avenue, case by case.

01

Email

Attackers usually send legitimate-looking emails to trick users into downloading a document or visiting a website. These attackers will set up a website that mimics the original one, then prompt you to enter your personal details.

One way to find out if an email is not from a fraudster is to clarify with the supposed sender. If a mail was purportedly sent from your financial institution, call them before opening the email. Alternatively, you can open your bank’s URL on a new browser window.

Above all, you should be careful about email instructions. Most phishing emails will try to give you a purported explanation of why you should take some actions. For instance, they might claim that your computer has been hacked, or your email inbox is full. Unless you have confirmed the request’s source is genuine, and you know what you are doing, you shouldn’t follow technical instructions from anyone.

02

Telephone

While it can be easy to spoof a number that shows up on caller ID, sometimes, it is difficult to verify the identity of the caller. Even if you know the phone number of a person or organization, there is no guarantee that the person who is calling is who they say they are.

Calling back the number usually helps to prove the validity of the caller. But even then, you still need to verify the number by looking it up in a telephone directory or on the internet. As a caution, you shouldn’t share sensitive information over the phone. After all, reputable institutions like banks, courts, or governments will rarely call you to request your personal information. If you receive such a call, ask the caller his or her name, position, and department. After that, end the call and contact them back through a publicly listed telephone number of that organization.

03

Websites

Phishing attackers may impersonate a website you visit regularly and fill it will fake content. They do so to trick you into clicking links on it, calling a fake customer support number, or even sharing your credit card details.

  • Hackers often trick their targets through any of these four distinct channels:
  • Emails that require you to verify your account details.
  • Tempting advertisements.
  • Typo-squatting – for instance, using Googel.com instead of Google.com.
  • Search engines.

To avoid most of these tricks, always check the URLs of websites you visit. Besides this, you should avoid sharing your private data on untrustworthy sites. If possible, use a password manager with the auto-fill feature. It is not always easy for hackers to trick a password manager the same way they trick humans. If your password manager refuses to auto-fill a password, the site is most likely to be illegitimate. On top of this, consider using two-factor authentication.

And if you are already a victim of a phishing attack, devise a strategy to neutralize the damage. Phishing attacks can cause unimaginable damage to an individual or organization.

What to Do If You are a Victim of a Phishing Attack?

Contact the Relevant Institutions: If you lose your financial details to phishing scams, call your bank, and then explain the situation. They are likely to freeze your accounts to avoid further damage. You should also notify your local police departments, especially if it has a cybercrime division.

Modify Your Login Details: Since scammers could sign-in into your online accounts, change all your passwords as the first security measure. Doing this will keep them out of your system, thus reducing further damage.

Scan Your System: After changing your login credentials, you should also scan your system. Who knows, the attacker could have triggered you to installed malware or backdoor software on your device.

Prevent Phishing Attacks Using a VPN

Your best defense strategy against phishing attacks is to deploy a security solution that will enable you to authorize legitimate emails and block fraudulent ones. Taking this into account, a VPN offers the best approach to tackle phishing attacks. Here’s how it works:

01

Hackers Can’t Monitor Your Traffic

A VPN can protect your network traffic and counter with any advanced phishing tricks, such as the browser hijacking method. Your VPN will prevent any attempt to trick you into visiting a phishing website.

02

VPNs can Detect Malicious Websites

Besides securing your data and enabling you to browse anonymously, most VPNs come with a built-in malicious websites detector. It is the database of identified phishing websites links that may compromise your privacy. Your VPN will warn you immediately when it encounters such sites.

03

VPNs Detect Spam Emails

As mentioned earlier, most attackers lure users to phishing websites using emails. Most of these emails look legitimate, only that they have links to malicious websites, which often ask you to share your private data. A VPN comes in to prevent attackers from tracking your email address or sending you spam emails.

04

VPNs Keep Your Browsing Activities Private

A VPN keeps your overall browsing session private, preventing you from any form of monitoring or threats. With a VPN, you will encrypt all your communications, making it impossible for bad actors to steal your private data.

05

VPNs Come with a Firewall That Protects You against Phishing Threats

Premium VPNs have a firewall feature, which can protect you against all kinds of attacks, including phishing threats. With the firewall activated, no attacker or malicious software will get into your system without your permission.

Watch Out How You Share Your Personal Information

As cyberattacks continue to become more sophisticated, you are likely to encounter bad actors who are looking to undermine your digital security. So, you should be careful about how you treat your personal information. Actually, common sense should be your first line of defense against most phishing attacks.

Be watchful of emails that ask you to keep your account open, to verify your account, or to click on links that may look innocent. These are phishing attempts by adversaries trying to get you into sharing your private information.

If you ever receive such a request, do not be in a hurry to verify information, whether it comes in the form of emails, phone calls, or advertisements. To reduce the vulnerability of these phishing attacks, you need to use the best protection system to guard yourself. Whenever possible, use a password manager, bookmarks, and two-factor authentication. The best phishing prevention strategy is to always use a VPN on your devices.

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