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What is phishing? Here’s everything you need to know

Here's how to dodge the digital hooks of modern phishing attacks

What is phishing? Like actual fishing, it’s no fun to be on the end of the hook. But that’s where every modern web user will likely find themselves at some point in their time online. Whether it’s through a phony email promising millions, a phone caller claiming to be from your bank, or a faked website login form, phishing is everywhere. The scary thing? It’s more profitable than ever.

Unlike many modern threats to our digital selves, though, Phishing scams have existed for centuries in more classic form and decades in their most recent. There are new methods and attack vectors at play today, but all they do is take advantage of new communication mediums to perform the same age-old scams that have been fooling unwary people forever.

Social engineering

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The main component of any phishing scam is social engineering. That’s the practice of tricking the user into believing that the person, email, or, web page they are dealing with is legitimate. It’s psychological manipulation to commit fraud. A digital form of classic confidence tricks to encourage the divulging of personal information.

The most classic use of social engineering in phishing is with email. The Nigerian Prince scam is a well known one, but it also has its more modern forms on social media. Other variations on the theme include, phone calls, emails or social networking messages purporting to be from your bank that want you to click on a link, or an email that seems to come from a colleague who desperately needs you to open an attachment. In some cases that leads to malicious sites that continue the phishing attack, but they may also download malicious software which loops in malware for a combined attack.

In all cases, phishing attacks that lean on social engineering encourage the user to partake in an action which is not advisable. They may use language to suggest time is of the essence, appeal to good natures, or suggest familiarity to further apply pressure to the potential victim.

A good rule of thumb to avoid such scams is to consider the old adage of, “it’s too good to be true,” and to never click on links within emails. When it comes to attachments, asking colleagues to distribute them over file sharing platforms is safer and less susceptible to manipulation than emails which can easily be spoofed to look like they come from somewhere legitimate.

Phony forms

A more hands-off form of phishing involves faking more than just an email. In some cases entire websites — or at least their login pages — are spoofed to give further feeling of legitimacy. They might use similar-seeming web addresses, copied artwork and design choices, and even security certificates, depending on the complexity of the forgery.

As with the email scams, phishing websites are designed to encourage the victim to part with their personal information. A fake banking site or social network might steal your login credentials. A fake Bitcoin exchange might try to steal your cryptocurrency.

Although less common, the most sophisticated form of website spoofing involves using a security hole in a legitimate website to hijack it. When victims attempt to login, they are in fact putting their information into a phony login form, or are granting the attackers the ability to login to that site at the same time as them.

The best way to avoid such attacks is to always make sure you’re actually on the right website — not one with a similar URL — and to be suspicious of any surprise login prompts. If in doubt, type the web address you know to be safe in your web browser rather than using links.

Targeted phishing

Phishing is generally quite generic with attackers looking to cast their net wide to try and snare as many potential victims as possible. This is especially important now that most modern web browser employ anti-phishing security measures. However, some of the most effective phishing attacks have been successful because they were targeted. The practice of using specific information about individuals, perhaps garnered from a previous social engineering or malware attack, is known as spear phishing.

Spear phishing can take the guise of emails, phone calls, or instant messages in much the same way as more general attacks. They will employ disarming tactics like first name usage, or preferred personal information that could seem to only come from a legitimate source. This can be for the purpose of monetary gain, but there have also been instances of it being employed for the purpose of industrial espionage and political manipulation.

According to a 2017 Keepnet study, the average successful spear phishing attack on businesses nets the attackers $1.6 million, making it far more profitable than other types of digital attacks.

Another more niche form of phishing known as “whaling” can be even more lucrative. It specifically targets high-net worth individuals and businesses with the purpose of scamming them out of money or gaining high-level digital access to an organization.

Spear phishing attacks are, by their very nature, much harder to spot and avoid in turn. However, it’s important to remember that they rely on the same manipulative techniques as other phishing scams. They want your information. If you are very careful about the information you give out and the context you offer it in, you should be relatively safe from all forms of phishing.

You can further mitigate the problems associated with phishing attack fall out by using unique passwords on all your services and storing them in a strong password manager.

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Jon Martindale
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