Phishing attacks are scams that trick people into exposing financial details and other sensitive data. Phishing is not new; this type of online attack has been around almost as long as the internet, but today’s schemes are more sophisticated and harder to detect than ever. In the past, all but the most naïve could see through badly written requests to transfer money or suspicious-looking prize notices. This is not the case with modern phishing schemes which often resemble official communications so closely it’s hard to tell the difference. Some hackers take the time to learn co-worker’s names and personal details to make them appear even more convincing.
Phishing scams pose numerous risks. The most common scenario is a virus that will infect a computer through a contaminated link or a compressed document. Malware delivered through phishing can steal personal information, including financial details, or it may contain ransomware that will encrypt computer files and hold them hostage until you pay a fee. Most viruses have the ability to spread and infect an entire company network and businesses are frequently targeted since they have more resources and incentive to protect their data.
Falling prey to a phishing attack leaves a company vulnerable to financial theft, as well as leaks that could release trade secrets and confidential information. Compromising data released to the public causes reputational damage that’s hard to undo. Experts at Reputation Defender work to safeguard client reputations through regular privacy audits that catch problems as they emerge. We also help to repair online reputation by creating and promoting positive content.
Types of Phishing Attacks
There are basically two ways a hacker may design a phishing scheme:
- Mass-scale phishing – A general attack that includes many different methods of communication. A lot like casting a large fishing net, mass-scale attacks do not target a specific person. However, they may include numerous semi-random attempts aimed at discovering the weakest link in a company’s network – the one employee gullible enough to click on a random link or reveal their password to a stranger.
- Spear-phishing or Whaling – Spear-phishing is a targeted attack aimed at a specific person or a group of people. This type of phishing attack often includes details that make the included information seem legitimate. Emails can be designed to resemble personal office communication or a typical business invoice. Whaling is a type of spear-phishing that targets high-level personnel, particularly the CEO. Hooking these so-called “large fish” gives cyber criminals easier access to sensitive company data and financial accounts.
Methods of Delivery
Fraudsters have found even more creative ways to deliver links, through email, phone calls, text messaging and social media feeds.
A phishing email often looks like a generic notice from a well-known company or a bank. Cyber criminals have been known to copy logos from PayPal and eBay well enough to avoid detection. Typical scare tactics include warnings that the account is insecure, the password has been changed or there is a payment past due. Phishing emails usually include a CTA asking victims to click on a link or open an attached document. A targeted spear-phishing email may reference a colleague or a boss.
Things to look for – Many phishing emails still have small spelling mistakes or grammatical errors that a native speaker wouldn’t make, so this is the first thing to check. A missing email signature is another red flag or a form of address or writing style that’s not normal. Sometimes the only way to detect a phishing email is through slight changes in the email or domain name, such as the use of zeros instead of the letter “O” or “rn instead “m”. These can be easily missed, so if anything seems off, double-check the email address and domain name carefully.
Voice phishing – Vishing
Phone calls are another phishing technique (called vishing) which is aimed at getting individuals to hand over financial details or personal information. Like email phishing, vishing is often based on scare tactics that encourage victims to take action quickly without thinking about the consequences. Fraudsters may warn that a bank account is in danger or they may threaten legal action if a bill is not paid. Between 2013 and 2016, almost 900,000 people in the US received vishing calls purporting to be from tax collectors with IRS. These calls resulted in 5,000 victims with collective losses of USD $26.5 million.
Things to look for – Asking that bills be paid over the phone is unusual, so this should be an immediate warning. Banks also rarely ask for financial details or personal information over the phone. Don’t give details out unless you’ve made the phone call yourself to an official number and you know the counselor you’re speaking with well enough to recognize his or her voice. Other things to watch for are masked numbers or unknown caller ID.
SMS phishing – Smishing
Text messaging is another phishing technique that has come to be called smishing. Smishing messages often resemble phishing emails; they can come in the form of fake account notices with a CTA link. Some cyber criminals have even been known to use smishing to highjack a two-party identification system, first by requesting a password reset on your account, then sending a text asking for the code you just received in order to fix ‘’unusual activity” on that same account.
What to look for – Unusual or unfamiliar numbers should be a give-away, as well as unsolicited messages or codes you haven’t requested. Unless this is a company that normally sends texts, you should wonder why they are using this form of communication.
Social Media Phishing
Phishing schemes have also infiltrated social media. Fraudulent posts may claim you’ve won the lottery or ask you to click and sign up for membership. Targeted attacks often pretend to be from a friend who’s opened a second account. Some scams may even come from a regular account that’s been hacked.
What to look for – Watch for irregularities (why would a friend choose to open different account?) or language that doesn’t sound like the person you know. Be suspicious of sponsored posts from unknown businesses and links included in comments made by people you don’t know well.
Avoid Getting Hooked
Avoid all forms of phishing with these basic guidelines:
- Don’t click on a link in an email or a text message unless you’re sure who the sender is.
- Be wary of unsolicited messages and unusual account notices. Verify with the company before taking any action.
- Always sign in to your accounts via a trusted app or by entering the URL in your browser. Don’t use an embedded link even if you think it’s legitimate.
- Double-check any communication that’s doesn’t follow normal protocol. It never hurts to follow-up with an old fashioned phone call to make sure the message is from the real sender, especially if there’s money or confidential information involved.
- Don’t transfer money without verifying who’s asking for it and where it’s going.
- Don’t give out personal information over the phone.
- Don’t fall for scams that seem too good to be true. They probably are.