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What Is Phishing: Everything You Need to Know

A few simple steps to help you shield personal data from phishing scams

Ivana Vojinovic Image
Updated:

May 24,2022

Phishing attacks have been around for decades and continue to pose one of the biggest threats to online users. So, what is phishing, and what can you do to protect yourself? 

Phishing is a type of online scam where the individual or organization being targeted is tricked into revealing personal or financial information, such as passwords and credit card details. This information is then used for nefarious purposes. Keep reading to find out more about phishing tactics and how to avoid the phishing net.  

Online Swindle

Phishing is a form of online fraud that centers on the use of deception to get someone to reveal sensitive information. Attackers typically use email or instant messages to lure victims to fake websites, where they are asked to divulge personal details. 

Hackers rely on false websites, emails, SMS messages, phone calls, social media notifications, and voicemail messages to execute phishing attacks. These messages usually contain links that lead to malicious sites or initiate the download of malware.

Data phishing can be difficult to detect when potential victims don’t know what to look for, as criminals often spoof actual businesses and create convincing replicas of legitimate websites. As a result, users should exercise caution when clicking on links or opening attachments from questionable sources. 

Additionally, it is important to keep all software up-to-date, as many phishing attacks exploit vulnerabilities in outdated programs. By following these simple guidelines, users can protect themselves from becoming victims of this increasingly common type of fraud. Of course, to avoid becoming a victim of these attacks, you need to know the basic components of a phishing scam.

When it comes to phishing for information, the most common ingredient is a malicious link that leads to a fake page designed to look like a legitimate site. Attackers try to entice visitors to leave personal details by posing as an organization the victim trusts.

Harmful Attachments

Phishing emails often include malicious attachments that typically consist of Microsoft Office, Word, or Excel documents that carry a macro. These macros have a number of destructive functionalities, including downloading and installing harmful software on the targeted device. 

False Data Entry Forms

Fraudulent data entry forms are made to look like legitimate forms from your bank or other organizations chosen for the phishing attack, meaning the criminals get your personal information when you fill out the forms. The objective of these phishing scams is to get access to info such as login credentials or bank account numbers. 

Once the hacker obtains this info, they can steal your identity or run other types of scams - doxxing and other forms of online harassment. These elements are especially common in phishing attacks harvesting login credentials for social media accounts.

Recognizing Phishing Emails

There is no shortage of email scam examples online. This is a very broad net that is intended to trap any unsuspecting individual. That said, there are a few common components to look for that can help you identify a phishing attack:

  • The sender's email address may not match the name of the company they claim to represent.
  • The message may contain language designed to create a sense of urgency.
  • The message may contain grammatical/spelling errors indicating that it was not written by a native English speaker.
  • The message may contain links that lead to a different website than the one named in the text.
  • The website itself may look different than the company's official website.

Protection From Phishing Attacks

The goal of email phishing, by definition, is to trick people into sharing personal information, such as passwords or social security numbers. Attackers can use this information to commit fraud or identity theft. Phishing attacks are becoming more common and sophisticated, highlighting the need for protective measures.

There are several steps you can take to protect yourself from phishing attacks. 

  • Be wary of any email or text message that asks you to click on a link or download an attachment. If you're not expecting a message, it's best to delete it without opening it. Getting you to click on a harmful attachment is the whole point of a phishing email, meaning that this is a social engineering technique. 
  • Be cautious with any message that comes off as urgent or contains threatening language. This is often a tactic used by attackers to create a sense of urgency and get you to act before you have a chance to think. 
  • Avoid using the same passwords for several sites and accounts because this can be easily exploited by scammers. Password managers can be very helpful in this area. These apps memorize passwords, generate new ones, and often use end-to-end encryption to shield the password database from prying eyes.
  • A phishing scam, by definition, exploits the user’s gullibility and app vulnerabilities. Make sure to keep all of your software up-to-date. Many phishing attacks exploit vulnerabilities in outdated programs.
  • Get antivirus software from specific brands that usually offer anti-phishing tools and have a good track record in locating and preventing these fraudulent assaults. Make sure the software has the relevant tools before downloading anything.
  • Use spam filters and two-factor authentication software to employ another layer of protection for your login credentials. This can protect you from many types of phishing attacks. Even if a hacker gains access to your credentials, they cannot access your account since 2FA requires an additional code that only account holders receive.

By following these simple guidelines, you can protect yourself from phishing attacks. In case you do end up becoming a victim of a phishing scam, stay calm and do the following:

The first step is to change all passwords on affected accounts and sites. Then, run a scan with an antivirus software to find and remove any malware. Phishing schemes, by definition, refer to the actual process of trying to steal information from someone. But this process can involve the use of malware. 

Phishing Tactics 

Cybercriminals are constantly looking for new ways to trick people into giving up their personal information or sneaking malware onto their devices. One of the best ways to avoid these is to get familiar with the most common phishing tactics. 

One of these is spear phishing. This involves sending targeted emails to specific individuals or groups of people in an attempt to gather personal information. 

Microsoft 365 phishing is another common tactic, where attackers send emails that appear to be from Microsoft or one of its partners. These emails are the basic definition of phishing scams and often contain attachments that install malware on the victim's computer when opened. 

Business email compromise or BEC is a newer type of scam in which the attacker poses as a legitimate business contact and asks for sensitive information or money. 

Whaling is a similar scam that targets high-level executives or wealthy individuals. 

Social media phishing is a cyberattack designed to gain access to your social media account or steal personal data. These attacks are executed through platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

Voice phishing, also known as vishing, is a phishing cybercrime where the attacker calls you on the phone and tries to get you to give them personal information. 

Pharming is similar to phishing fraud in that both are a type of social engineering attack. But unlike phishing which uses bait in the form of fake links, pharming redirects a website’s traffic to a simulated one either by exploiting a vulnerability on the DNS server or by changing the hosts’ file on targeted computers. 

Typosquatting is a type of phishing attack where the attacker creates a fake website that is similar to a legitimate website. The only difference is the URL, which contains some sort of typo

Tabnabbing is an internet phishing attack that involves the manipulation of inactive web pages by seeking to redirect victims to malicious sites. The most common victims are those who keep multiple tabs open and don’t pay attention to details.  

Smishing is a cyberattack where the hacker sends you a text message with a link to a fake website. They have the potential to do the most harm since users who rely on SMS messages regularly use two-factor authentication tools with stored login credentials.

CEO fraud is an online scam where criminals impersonate executives and typically try to trick employees into wiring money to a bank account controlled by the attacker. According to the FBI, attackers have stolen billions of dollars in recent years. This type of phishing in cyber security departments within the FBI is considered a serious threat. 

Malvertising is a type of advertising with phishing links that spread malware through fake online ads which mimic real ones.

Search engine phishing involves the creation of a fake site, which is then indexed on actual search engines. Unsuspecting online users click on these malicious sites thinking that they are legitimate sources of information.

As you can see, there are many different tactics that cybercriminals use in phishing scams. By being aware of these tactics and knowing how to avoid them, you can help protect yourself from these and other phishing scams. 

The information on phishing outlined in this guide is a crucial asset in defending yourself from these digital threats. Although cybercriminals are constantly coming up with new phishing ways to deceive victims, it's important to be aware of the most common tactics and how to avoid them. 

Where It All Started

Phishing is a type of online fraud that has been around for nearly two decades. The term phishing was first publicly used in 1996 in reference to a fraudulent email that was sent by a group of hackers in an attempt to acquire user passwords from the online service provider AOL. But a few years earlier, a 17-year-old hacker from Pittsburgh created the AOHell toolkit -  a first of its kind program that had a function for stealing the passwords of AOL users.   

So, what is modern-day phishing like? Since the mid-1990s, phishing has evolved into a sophisticated form of cybercrime, with criminals using increasingly advanced methods to steal sensitive information. 

In 2014, Sony Pictures fell victim to a major phishing attack that involved an email sent out to the company's executives. The fake email appeared to come from Apple, and it resulted in revealing over 100 terabytes of information regarding unannounced movie projects and employee details. This mistake cost the movie studio over $100 million. It was one of the more disturbing examples of executive phishing.

Not even IT giants like Google and Facebook were spared from phishing strikes. Between 2013 and 2015, a Lithuanian citizen sent a number of invoices worth millions of dollars to the two companies. By the time the phishing scam was uncovered, Facebook and Google suffered over $94 million in damages.

As you can see, many phishing attacks target large companies and corporations employing over 10,000 people. However, individual and focused spear-phishing scams are equally widespread and cause extensive damage around the globe. As such, all internet users need to take safety precautions seriously in order to avoid falling victim to any sort of phishing activity.

For example, one phishing strike targeted two employees from a home care provider. From this attack, hackers acquired data about the email accounts of other employees. They also managed to get a hold of information on more than 100,000 elderly patients, including their sensitive and financial reports.

The latest statistics show that in 2021, 83% of corporations suffered a successful email phishing attack, luring employees to click on links containing malware. This is a 46% increase from 2020, which shows that the phishing threat is here to stay.

Conclusion

Out of all dangers online, phishing remains the most overlooked by individual internet users and unsuspecting businesses. This is a deceptively simple form of cyberattacks but one that continues to be the main source of digital harassment, identity theft, and corporate data stealing. The best way to fight phishing is to arm yourself with knowledge about the tactics being used and remain vigilant when opening your next email.

Further Reading

Data Breach Statistics That Will Make You Think Twice Before Filling Out an Online Form
FAQ
What are 4 types of phishing?

There are many different phishing examples. Some of the most prevalent types of cyber assaults are spear phishing, social media phishing, CEO fraud, and typosquatting. Spear phishing includes sending targeted emails to individuals or specific groups to extract personal information. 

In social media phishing, hackers pose as friends or family members in an effort to gain access to your login credentials. CEO fraud is a devastating scam where hackers pose as executives and trick employees into wiring money to their accounts. With typosquatting, malicious actors make a fake site with a misspelled URL.

What are 3 ways to prevent phishing?

Many online users aren’t familiar with the threats that come with the digitization of vital information, and many are still asking, what is phishing? Phishing is widely regarded as one of the top cybersecurity threats. That’s why you should avoid emails that ask you to click on an attachment or a web link. You should also regularly update all apps and install an antivirus tool to prevent phishing strikes.

What if I opened a phishing email?

When you realize you opened a phishing email, change all passwords on the affected device and your online accounts. A virus scan will tell you if any malware was secretly installed, and the antivirus software should be able to remove it.

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