In a phishing attack, an attacker uses human interaction / social skills (termed ‘pretexting’) to obtain or compromise information about an organisation, personnel, computer systems or all three. An attacker may seem unassuming and respectable, possibly claiming to be a new employee, repair person, contractor or researcher and may even offer credentials to support that identity.
Using a range of techniques, a malicious actor may be able to piece together enough information to infiltrate an organisation’s network. One of the main techniques that attackers use is phishing.
What is phishing?
Phishing is a form of social engineering. Phishing attacks use email or malicious websites to solicit personal information by posing as a trustworthy organisation. For example, an attacker may send email seemingly from a credit card company or financial institution that requests account information, often suggesting that there is a problem. When users respond with the requested information, attackers can use it to gain access to their account. Phishing attacks may also appear to come from other types of organizations, such as charities.
Attackers often take advantage of current events and certain times of the year, such as
- Natural disasters (e.g., Hurricane Katrina, Indonesian tsunami)
- Epidemics and health scares (e.g., H1N1, COVID-19)
- Economic concerns (e.g., IRS scams)
- Major political elections
What is a vishing attack?
Vishing is a social engineering approach that leverages voice communication. This technique can be combined with other forms of social engineering that entice a victim to call a certain number and divulge sensitive information. Advanced vishing attacks can take place completely over voice communications by exploiting Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) solutions and broadcasting services. VoIP easily allows caller identity (ID) to be spoofed, which can take advantage of the public’s misplaced trust in the security of phone services, especially landline services
What is a smishing attack?
Smishing is a form of social engineering that exploits SMS messages. Text messages can contain links to such things as webpages, email addresses or phone numbers that when clicked may download keylogging malware to the targeted device, resulting in compromise of sensitive information such as banking logins. This integration of email, voice, text message, and web browser functionality increases the likelihood that users will fall victim to engineered malicious activity.
Common indicators of phishing attempts
Suspicious sender’s address.
The sender’s address may imitate a legitimate business. Cybercriminals often use an email address that closely resembles one from a reputable company by altering or omitting a few characters.
Generic greetings and signature.
Both a generic greeting—such as “Dear Valued Customer” or “Sir/Ma’am”—and a lack of contact information in the signature block are strong indicators of a phishing email. A trusted organisation will normally address you by name and provide their contact information.
Spoofed hyperlinks and websites.
If you hover your cursor over any links in the body of the email, and the links do not match the text that appears when hovering over them, the link may be spoofed. Malicious websites may look identical to a legitimate site, but the URL may use a variation in spelling or a different domain (for example .net instead of .com). Additionally, cybercriminals may use a URL shortening service to hide the true destination of the link.
Spelling and layout.
Poor grammar and sentence structure, misspellings, and inconsistent formatting are other indicators of a possible phishing attempt. Reputable institutions have dedicated personnel that produce, verify, and proofread customer correspondence.
An unsolicited email requesting a user download and open an attachment is a common delivery mechanism for malware. A cybercriminal may use a false sense of urgency or importance to help persuade a user to download or open an attachment without examining it first.
How to avoid being a victim
- Be suspicious of unsolicited phone calls, visits, or email messages from individuals asking about employees or other internal information. If an unknown individual claims to be from a legitimate organization, try to verify his or her identity directly with the company.
- Do not provide personal information or information about your organization, including its structure or networks, unless you are certain of a person’s authority to have the information.
- Do not reveal personal or financial information in email, and do not respond to email solicitations for this information. This includes following links sent in an email.
- Don’t send sensitive information over the internet before checking a website’s security – especially using public, unencrypted Wi-Fi.
- Pay attention to the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) of a website. Look for URLs that begin with “https”—an indication that a site is secure—rather than “http.”
- Look for a closed padlock icon—a sign your information will be encrypted.
- If you are unsure whether an email request is legitimate, try to verify it by contacting the company directly. Do not use contact information provided on a website connected to the request; instead, check previous statements for contact information. Information about known phishing attacks is also available online from groups such as the Anti-Phishing Working Group.
- Install and maintain anti-virus software, firewalls, and email filters to reduce some of this traffic.
- Take advantage of any anti-phishing features offered by your email client and web browser.
- Enforce multi-factor authentication (MFA).
- What to do if you think you’re a victim
- If you believe you might have revealed sensitive information about your organization, report it to the appropriate people within the organization, including network administrators. They can be alert for any suspicious or unusual activity.
- If you believe your financial accounts may be compromised, contact your financial institution immediately and close any accounts that may have been compromised. Watch for any unexplainable charges to your account.
- Immediately change any passwords you might have revealed. If you used the same password for multiple resources, make sure to change it to a unique password for each account, and do not use that password in the future.
- Consider reporting the attack to the police or federal authorities.