Phishing is a cybercrime in which a target or targets are contacted by email, telephone or text message by someone posing as a legitimate institution to lure individuals into providing sensitive data such as personally identifiable information, banking and credit card details, and passwords.
In other words, The attacker uses phishing emails to distribute malicious links or attachments that can perform a variety of functions, including the extraction of login credentials or account information from victims.
The information is then used to access important accounts and can result in identity theft and financial loss.
How Phishing Works?
Suppose you check your e-mail one day and find a message from your bank. You’ve gotten e-mail from them before, but this one seems suspicious, especially since it threatens to close your account if you don’t reply immediately. What do you do?
This message and others like it are examples of phishing, a method of online identity theft. In addition to stealing personal and financial data, phishers can infect computers with viruses and convince people to participate unwittingly in money laundering.
Most people associate phishing with e-mail messages that spoof, or mimic, banks, credit card companies or other business like Amazon and eBay. These messages look authentic and attempt to get victims to reveal their personal information. But e-mail messages are only one small piece of a phishing scam.
From beginning to end, the process involves:
- Planning: Phishers decide which business to target and determine how to get e-mail addresses for the customers of that business. They often use the same mass-mailing and address collection techniques as spammers.
- Setup: Once they know which business to spoof and who their victims are, phishers create methods for delivering the message and collecting the data. Most often, this involves e-mail addresses and a Web page.
- Attack: This is the step people are most familiar with — the phisher sends a phony message that appears to be from a reputable source.
- Collection: Phishers record the information victims enter into Web pages or popup windows.
- Identity Theft and Fraud: The phishers use the information they’ve gathered to make illegal purchases or otherwise commit fraud. As many as a fourth of the victims never fully recover [Source: Information Week].
If the phisher wants to coordinate another attack, he evaluates the successes and failures of the completed scam and begins the cycle again.
Phishing scams take advantages of software and security weaknesses on both the client and server sides. But even the most high-tech phishing scams work like old-fashioned con jobs, in which a hustler convinces his mark that he is reliable and trustworthy. Next, we’ll look at the steps phishers take to convince victims that their messages are legitimate.
Types of Phishing:
As defenders continue to educate their users in phishing defense and deploy anti-phishing strategies, cybercriminals continue to hone their skills at existing phishing attacks and roll out new types of phishing scams. Some of the more common types of phishing attacks include the following:
1. Spear phishing attacks are directed at specific individuals or companies, usually using information specific to the victim that has been gathered to more successfully represent the message as being authentic. Spear phishing emails might include references to coworkers or executives at the victim’s organization, as well as the use of the victim’s name, location or other personal information.
2. Whaling attacks are a type of spear phishing attack that specifically targets senior executives within an organization, often with the objective of stealing large sums. Those preparing a spear phishing campaign research their victims in detail to create a more genuine message, as using information relevant or specific to a target increases the chances of the attack being successful.
A typical whaling attack targets an employee with the ability to authorize payments, with the phishing message appearing to be a command from an executive to authorize a large payment to a vendor when, in fact, the payment would be made to the attackers.
3. Pharming is a type of phishing that depends on DNS cache poisoning to redirect users from a legitimate site to a fraudulent one, and tricking users into using their login credentials to attempt to log in to the fraudulent site.
4. Clone phishing attacks use previously delivered, but legitimate emails that contain either a link or an attachment. Attackers make a copy — or clone — of the legitimate email, replacing one or more links or attached files with malicious links or malware attachments. Because the message appears to be a duplicate of the original, legitimate email, victims can often be tricked into clicking the malicious link or opening the malicious attachment.
This technique is often used by attackers who have taken control of another victim’s system. In this case, the attackers leverage their control of one system to pivot within an organization using email messages from a trusted sender known to the victims.
Phishers sometimes use the evil twin Wi-Fi attack by standing up a Wi-Fi access point and advertising it with a deceptive name that is similar to a legitimate access point. When victims connect to the evil twin Wi-Fi network, the attackers gain access to all the transmissions sent to or from victim devices, including user IDs and passwords. Attackers can also use this vector to target victim devices with their own fraudulent prompts for system credentials that appear to originate from legitimate systems.
5. Voice phishing, also known as vishing, is a form of phishing that occurs over voice communications media, including voice over IP (VoIP) or POTS (plain old telephone service). A typical vishing scam uses speech synthesis software to leave voicemails purporting to notify the victim of suspicious activity in a bank or credit account, and solicits the victim to respond to a malicious phone number to verify his identity — thus compromising the victim’s account credentials.
6. Another mobile device-oriented phishing attack, SMS phishing — also sometimes called SMishing or SMShing — uses text messaging to convince victims to disclose account credentials or to install malware.
What does a phishing email message look like?
Here is an example of what a phishing scam in an email message might look like.
Spelling and bad grammar. Cybercriminals are not known for their grammar and spelling. Professional companies or organizations usually have a staff of copy editors that will not allow a mass email like this to go out to its users. If you notice mistakes in an email, it might be a scam.
Beware of links in email. If you see a link in a suspicious email message, don’t click on it. Rest your mouse (but don’t click) on the link to see if the address matches the link that was typed in the message. In the example below the link reveals the real web address, as shown in the box with the yellow background. The string of cryptic numbers looks nothing like the company’s web address.
Links might also lead you to .exe files. These kinds of file are known to spread malicious software.
Threats. Have you ever received a threat that your account would be closed if you didn’t respond to an email message? The email message shown above is an example of the same trick. Cybercriminals often use threats that your security has been compromised.
Spoofing popular websites or companies. Scam artists use graphics in email that appear to be connected to legitimate websites but actually take you to phony scam sites or legitimate-looking pop-up windows.
Cybercriminals also use web addresses that resemble the names of well-known companies but are slightly altered.
Common Features of Phishing Emails:
Below are the common features of Phishing Emails that you must know.
- Too Good To Be True – Lucrative offers and eye-catching or attention-grabbing statements are designed to attract people’s attention immediately. For instance, many claim that you have won an iPhone, a lottery, or some other lavish prize. Just don’t click on any suspicious emails. Remember that if it seems to good to be true, it probably is!
- Sense of Urgency – A favorite tactic amongst cybercriminals is to ask you to act fast because the super deals are only for a limited time. Some of them will even tell you that you have only a few minutes to respond. When you come across these kinds of emails, it’s best to just ignore them. Sometimes, they will tell you that your account will be suspended unless you update your personal details immediately. Most reliable organizations give ample time before they terminate an account and they never ask patrons to update personal details over the Internet. When in doubt, visit the source directly rather than clicking a link in an email.
- Hyperlinks – A link may not be all it appears to be. Hovering over a link shows you the actual URL where you will be directed upon clicking on it. It could be completely different or it could be a popular website with a misspelling, for instance www.bankofarnerica.com – the ‘m’ is actually an ‘r’ and an ‘n’, so look carefully.
- Attachments – If you see an attachment in an email you weren’t expecting or that doesn’t make sense, don’t open it! They often contain payloads like ransomware or other viruses. The only file type that is always safe to click on is a .txt file.
- Unusual Sender – Whether it looks like it’s from someone you don’t know or someone you do know, if anything seems out of the ordinary, unexpected, out of character or just suspicious in general don’t click on it!
Here is a great KnowBe4 resource that outlines 22 social engineering red flags commonly seen in phishing emails. We recommend printing out this PDF to pass along to family, friends, and coworkers.
How to prevent Phishing?
Phishing defense begins with educating users to identify phishing messages, but there are other tactics that can cut down on successful attacks.
A gateway email filter can trap many mass-targeted phishing emails and reduce the number of phishing emails that reach users’ inboxes.
Enterprise mail servers should make use of at least one email authentication standard to verify that inbound email is verified. These include the Sender Policy Framework (SPF) protocol, which can help reduce unsolicited email (spam); the DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) protocol, which enables users to block all messages except for those that have been cryptographically signed; and the Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) protocol, which specifies that both SPF and DKIM be in use for inbound email, and which also provides a framework for using those protocols to block unsolicited email — including phishing email — more effectively.
A web security gateway can also provide another layer of defense by preventing users from reaching the target of a malicious link. They work by checking requested URLs against a constantly updated database of sites suspected of distributing malware.
There are several resources on the internet that provide help in combating phishing. The Anti-Phishing Working Group Inc. and the federal government’s OnGuardOnline.gov website both provide advice on how to spot, avoid and report phishing attacks. Interactive security awareness training aids, such as Wombat Security Technologies’ Anti-Phishing Training Suite or PhishMe, can help teach employees how to avoid phishing traps, while sites like FraudWatch International and MillerSmiles publish the latest phishing email subject lines that are circulating the internet.
Beware of phishing phone calls:
Cybercriminals might call you on the phone and offer to help solve your computer problems or sell you a software license. Example: Neither Microsoft nor their partners make unsolicited phone calls (also known as cold calls) to charge you for computer security or software fixes.
Once they’ve gained your trust, cybercriminals might ask for your user name and password or ask you to go to a website to install software that will let them access your computer to fix it. Once you do this, your computer and your personal information is vulnerable.
Treat all unsolicited phone calls with skepticism. Do not provide any personal information.
How phishing got its name?
The history of the term phishing is not entirely clear.
One common explanation for the term is that phishing is a homophone of fishing, and is so named because phishing scams use lures to catch unsuspecting victims, or fish.
Another explanation for the origin of phishing comes from a string — <>< — which is often found in AOL chat logs because those characters were a common HTML tag found in chat transcripts. Because it occurred so frequently in those logs, AOL admins could not productively search for it as a marker of potentially improper activity. Black hat hackers, the story goes, would replace any reference to illegal activity — including credit card or account credentials theft — with the string, which eventually gave the activity its name because the characters appear to be a simple rendering of a fish.
How Common is Phishing Today?
A global study released by the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) in 2014 suggests that 54% of phishing emails targeted major bands including Apple, PayPal, and Chinese marketplace Taobao, indicating that phishers update their approaches looking out for new victims in niche industry segments.
While millions of phishing URLs were reported in 2014, there were at least 123,972 unique phishing attacks worldwide in the second half of 2014. (source – Antiphishing).
Why phishing is Successful for Scammers?
Phishing emails are blindly sent to thousands, if not millions of recipients. By spamming large groups of people, the “phisher” counts on the email being read by a percentage of people who actually have an account with the legitimate company being spoofed in the email and corresponding webpage.
Phishing, also referred to as brand spoofing or carding, is a variation on “fishing,” the idea being that bait is thrown out with the hopes that while most will ignore the bait, some will be tempted into biting.
Report phishing scams:
If you receive a fake phone call, take down the caller’s information and report it to your local authorities.
- In the United States, use the FTC Complaint Assistant form.
- In Canada, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre can provide support.
- In the United Kingdom, you can report fraud as well as unsolicited calls.
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