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Understanding the Basics: What is Phishing and How Does it Work?


The goal of phishing is to get your personal information or login credentials. This allows cyber attackers to access corporate systems or use your data in ransomware attacks against others.

Phishing typically involves an email or other communication that looks legitimate and encourages a sense of urgency. It will ask you to verify your login information or click a link to a spoof website.

What is Phishing?

Phishing is a type of social engineering in which attackers pose as legitimate entities or people in email, phone calls, or other means of communication. Attackers typically rely on invoking a sense of alarm or loss to trick victims into revealing sensitive information or installing malware.

A standard definition of phishing tactics includes a malicious attachment resembling a trusted source file. These files often contain macros that can perform various tasks, including downloading malware, stealing user credentials, and executing other attacks. Attackers can also use attachments to infect a computer with ransomware, which can encrypt data and require payment to restore access.

Other types of phishing include vishing, which uses phone calls to solicit personal information, and SMS phishing, which exploits mobile devices. Targeted phishing is increasingly popular, with attackers targeting specific individuals in their organization and encouraging them to divulge confidential information or download malware.

Some key giveaways can help identify malicious messages regardless of the phishing attack type. For example, spelling and grammatical errors are a sign that the message is not authentic. Spelling and grammar mistakes are unique for most professionals, so if an email contains many of these errors, it should raise suspicions. Also, any request to perform non-standard actions, such as opening an attachment or clicking on a link, should act as a red flag.

Phishing Attacks Types

Phishing attacks come in various forms but rely on deception to persuade targets to reveal private or sensitive information. Attackers typically aim to steal account credentials, personal information, and corporate trade secrets. However, they can also target specific devices like web browsers, mobile phones, or software applications.

Standard email phishing is the most common type of phishing attack. Messages can vary but often contain links to cloned websites that steal passwords or account details. They can also lure victims into downloading weaponized documents that secretly deliver malware payloads, such as trojans or ransomware.

More sophisticated attackers can use messages that target specific businesses. For example, they may pose as employees from a particular department or supplier. This kind of attack is called spear phishing and requires a greater degree of research to be successful.

Consumers can also be targeted via social media by attacking brand accounts with fake customer support messages. They might claim there are issues with orders or shipments or need to verify their details. Attackers often include partial account numbers in the message, knowing people don’t distinguish between the first and last digits. The use of misspellings and grammatical errors is another indicator that a message is likely malicious.

Detecting Phishing Attacks

Phishing attacks can take many forms, including email, instant messaging services, and even text messages. Regardless of the medium, attackers will seek to elicit a sense of urgency or request personal information from the target. Using this information could result in malware being launched or passwords being stolen, among other things.

In email phishing attacks, attackers often attempt to lure users by impersonating a known service or organization. The phishing message will typically direct the victim to a malicious website to steal credentials or download malware on the user’s device. For instance, attackers commonly send a Microsoft Office document with a macro that can silently download malicious code when the file is opened.

As technology evolves, attackers have continued experimenting with phishing techniques. They will utilize whatever methods possible to get a footing in an organization, including social media, internet search results, and the company’s website. Attackers will then use data from these sources to create a highly tailored message to the victim.

Phishing attacks aim to access critical data, such as credentials or financial information. The good news is that phishing attacks can be prevented with robust cybersecurity systems and proper user training to recognize warning signs. The key to detecting phishing attacks is always to review the details of an email. For example, the email address for the sender should match that of the targeted organization and be free of typos or misspellings. You can also run the email address through online forums and resources to see if others have flagged it as a possible phishing attempt.

Preventing Phishing Attacks

Organizations must train personnel to recognize and report phishing attempts in addition to having the proper security tools. This is an ongoing process, as attackers constantly update their tactics. It only takes one person to click a malicious link to enable an attack that can cause a data breach.

Attackers can use phishing to spread malware or trick victims into visiting a fake website or revealing passwords and other sensitive information. They may also try to install programs or sabotage systems to steal money, intellectual property, or other valuable assets.

While phishing typically comes as an email, it can also arrive via text message, social media, or even a phone call. These messages can look deceivingly authentic, which makes them difficult to spot.

Often, phishing attacks target specific individuals or organizations by gathering information about them from public sources. This can include social media posts, online profiles, or other personal information. Attackers can then tailor their tactics to match the likely target.

For example, if an employee is a frequent traveler and frequently visits certain websites, they might receive emails that appear to come from the airline or hotel they have visited. These messages are designed to create a sense of urgency and encourage the recipient to take action. They might threaten that a service will be interrupted or warn that an account will be suspended if they don’t respond quickly.

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