What Is Phishing and How Does It Work?
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What Is Phishing and How Does It Work?

What Is Phishing and How Does It Work?

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Na-publish Nov 28, 2018Na-update Feb 1, 2024
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TL;DR

  • Phishing is a malicious practice in which attackers disguise themselves as trustworthy entities to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information.

  • Stay vigilant against phishing by recognizing common signs like suspicious URLs and urgent requests for personal information.

  • Understand diverse phishing techniques, from common email scams to sophisticated spear phishing, to strengthen cybersecurity defenses.

Introduction

Phishing is a harmful tactic where bad actors pretend to be reliable sources to deceive people into sharing sensitive data. In this article, we will shed light on what phishing is, how it works, and what you can do to avoid falling prey to such scams.

How Phishing Works

Phishing primarily relies on social engineering, a method where attackers manipulate individuals into divulging confidential information. Attackers gather personal details from public sources (like social media) to craft seemingly authentic emails. Victims often receive malicious messages appearing to be from familiar contacts or reputable organizations.

The most common form of phishing occurs through emails containing malicious links or attachments. Clicking on these links may install malware on the user's device or lead them to counterfeit websites designed to steal personal and financial information.

While it’s easier to spot poorly written phishing emails, cybercriminals are employing advanced tools like chatbots and AI voice generators to enhance the authenticity of their attacks. This makes it challenging for users to distinguish between genuine and fraudulent communications.

Recognizing Phishing Attempts

Identifying phishing emails can be tricky, but there are some signs you can watch for.

Common Signs

Be cautious if the message contains suspicious URLs, uses public email addresses, induces fear or urgency, requests personal information, or has spelling and grammatical errors. In most cases, you should be able to hover your mouse over the links to check the URLs without actually clicking on them.

Digital Payment-Based Scams

Phishers often impersonate trusted online payment services like PayPal, Venmo, or Wise. Users receive fraudulent emails urging them to verify login details. It's crucial to remain vigilant and report suspicious activity.

Finance-Based Phishing Attacks

Scammers pose as banks or financial institutions, claiming security breaches to obtain personal information. Common tactics include deceptive emails about money transfers or direct deposit scams targeting new employees. They may also claim that there is an urgent security update.

These personalized scams involve attackers posing as executives, CEOs, or CFOs, requesting wire transfers or fake purchases. Voice phishing using AI voice generators over the phone is another method employed by scammers.

How to Prevent Phishing Attacks

To prevent phishing attacks, it’s important to employ multiple security measures. Avoid clicking any links directly. Instead, go to the company’s official website or communication channels to check if the information you received is legit. Consider using security tools such as antivirus software, firewalls, and spam filters. 

Additionally, organizations should use email authentication standards to verify inbound emails. Common examples of email authentication methods include DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) and DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance).

For individuals, it’s crucial to inform their family and friends about the risks of phishing. For companies, it’s vital to educate employees about phishing techniques and provide periodic awareness training to reduce risks.

If you need further assistance and information, look for government initiatives like OnGuardOnline.gov and organizations like the Anti-Phishing Working Group Inc. They provide more detailed resources and guidance on spotting, avoiding, and reporting phishing attacks.

Types of Phishing

Phishing techniques are evolving, with cybercriminals using various methods. The different types of phishing are usually classified according to the target and attack vector. Let’s take a closer look.

Clone phishing

An attacker will use a previously sent, legitimate email and copy its contents into a similar one containing a link to a malicious site. The attacker might also claim that this is an updated or new link, stating that the previous one was incorrect or expired.

Spear phishing

This type of attack is focused on one person or institution. A spear attack is more sophisticated than other phishing types because it is profiled. This means the attacker first collects information about the victim (e.g., names of friends or family members) and uses this data to lure the victim to a malicious website file.

Pharming

An attacker will poison a DNS record, which, in practice, will redirect visitors of a legitimate website to a fraudulent one that the attacker has made beforehand. This is the most dangerous of the attacks because DNS records are not within the user's control, thus making the user helpless to defend against.

Whaling

A form of spear phishing that targets wealthy and important people, such as CEOs and government officials.

Email spoofing

Phishing emails typically spoof communications from legitimate companies or people. Phishing emails may present unknowing victims with links to malicious sites, where attackers collect login credentials and PII using cleverly disguised login pages. The pages may contain trojans, keyloggers, and other malicious scripts that steal personal information.

Website redirects

Website redirects send users to URLs different from the one the user intended to visit. Actors exploiting vulnerabilities may insert redirects and install malware onto users’ computers.

Typosquatting

Typosquatting directs traffic to counterfeit websites that use foreign language spellings, common misspellings, or subtle variations in the top-level domain. Phishers use domains to mimic legitimate website interfaces, taking advantage of users who mistype or misread the URL.

Fake paid ads

Paid advertisements are another tactic used for phishing. These (fake) advertisements utilize domains that attackers have typosquatted and paid to have pushed up in search results. The site may even appear as a top search result on Google.

Watering hole attack

In a watering hole attack, phishers analyze users and determine websites they frequently visit. They scan these sites for vulnerabilities and try to inject malicious scripts designed to target users the next time they visit that website.

Impersonation and fake giveaways

Impersonation of influential figures on social media. Phishers may impersonate key leaders of companies and advertise giveaways or engage in other deceptive practices. Victims of this trickery may even be targeted individually through social engineering processes aimed at finding gullible users. Actors may hack verified accounts and modify usernames to impersonate a real figure while maintaining verified status.

Recently, phishers have been heavily targeting platforms like Discord, X, and Telegram for the same purposes: spoofing chats, impersonating individuals, and mimicking legitimate services.

Malicious Applications

Phishers may also use malicious Apps that monitor your behavior or steal sensitive information. The apps may pose as price trackers, wallets, and other crypto-related tools (which have a base of users predisposed to trading and possessing cryptocurrency).

SMS and voice phishing

A text message-based form of phishing, usually done through SMS or voice messages, that encourages users to share personal information.

Phishing vs. Pharming

Although some consider pharming a type of phishing attack, it relies on a different mechanism. The main difference between phishing and pharming is that phishing requires the victim to make a mistake. In contrast, pharming only requires the victim to try to access a legitimate website whose DNS record was compromised by the attacker.

Phishing in the Blockchain and Crypto Space

While blockchain technology provides strong data security due to its decentralized nature, users in the blockchain space should remain vigilant against social engineering and phishing attempts. Cybercriminals often attempt to exploit human vulnerabilities to gain access to private keys or login credentials. In most cases, the scams rely on human error.

Scammers may also try to trick users into revealing their seed phrases or transferring funds to fake addresses. It’s important to exercise caution and follow security best practices.

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, understanding phishing and staying informed about evolving techniques is crucial in safeguarding personal and financial information. By combining robust security measures, education, and awareness, individuals and organizations can fortify themselves against the ever-present threat of phishing in our interconnected digital world. Stay SAFU!

Further Reading

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