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Home » What is Phishing and How to Avoid It?

What is Phishing and How to Avoid It?

    Phishing is a type of online scam that targets unsuspecting internet users in order to steal their personal information and credentials. Phishers use deceptive emails, fake websites, and other tactics to trick users into sharing sensitive data like login credentials, bank account details, credit card numbers, and more. With the stolen information, phishers can gain access to victims’ accounts, commit identity theft, or install malware. As phishing scams become more sophisticated, it’s important for all internet users to understand what phishing is, how it works, and how to protect themselves online.

    How Phishing Works

    Phishing scams typically start with a convincing fake email designed to lure victims into taking an action that will benefit the scammer. Here are some common tactics phishers use:

    Deceptive Emails

    • Emails impersonating trusted brands like banks, credit card companies, online retailers, social networks, etc.
    • Emails claiming there is a problem with your account that requires urgent action
    • Fake package delivery notifications with links to download tracking info
    • Job offers, prize notifications, or other opportunities that require you to submit personal info

    Fake Websites

    • Websites with URLs very similar to legitimate sites to trick users
    • Login pages asking for account credentials, financial info, etc.
    • Pop-up windows with forms requesting personal or financial data

    Malicious Attachments and Links

    • Links in emails and websites that download malware if clicked
    • Attachments with infected files that install malware if opened

    The goal is to urgently pressure victims into taking an action like clicking a link, downloading a file, or submitting sensitive information to a form. If the victim takes the bait, the phisher now has their personal data and can exploit it for financial gain.

    Types of Phishing Attacks

    There are a few common types of phishing scams to be aware of:

    Spear Phishing

    Spear phishing targets specific individuals, companies, or groups with emails that appear highly customized and relevant to the recipient. Spear phishing emails will often address the target by name and include details like account numbers to appear legitimate. The hyper-targeted nature makes spear phishing very deceptive.

    Whaling

    Whaling is a type of spear phishing that specifically targets high-profile individuals like corporate executives, politicians, celebrities, and the wealthy. The schemes aim to compromise accounts with large sums of money or sensitive information.

    Smishing

    Smishing uses text messaging rather than email to conduct phishing scams. Fraudulent text messages often contain links to phishing sites or phone numbers connected to scam call centers.

    Vishing

    Vishing uses phone calls, often robo-calls, to scam victims into sharing personal information over the phone. Scammers might impersonate banks, tech support, or government agencies.

    Pharming

    With pharming, scammers redirect website traffic from a legitimate website to a fake phishing site to steal login credentials and other data entered on the fraudulent site.

    Who is Behind Phishing Scams?

    Phishing scams are perpetrated by a range of cybercriminals motivated by financial gain. Some common sources of phishing schemes include:

    • Individual Scammers: Individual hackers who phish for login credentials, financial data, or identities to sell on black market sites or use themselves for fraud.
    • Organized Crime Rings: International organized crime groups who operate phishing schemes to gather data and identities for varied criminal operations.
    • Terrorists: Terrorist groups who phish for funds to finance operations or to gain access to sensitive information for cyber warfare.
    • Hostile Nations: State-sponsored hackers who conduct phishing operations for espionage, cyber warfare, or intellectual property theft.
    • Companies or Political Groups: Phishing by companies to steal data from competitors or by political groups to influence elections through disinformation campaigns.

    The anonymity of the internet makes it very difficult to trace the source of phishing scams. But being aware of the different bad actors who perpetrate phishing helps understand the possible motivations and goals.

    Recognizing Phishing Scams

    The first line of defense against phishing is being able to recognize the common signs of a phishing attempt. Here are some red flags to watch out for:

    Suspicious Sender Address

    Emails from unfamiliar addresses or domains that mimic a legitimate company name could signal an attempt at impersonation. Look closely at the full sender address.

    Generic Greetings

    Impersonal greetings like “Dear user” or “Dear client” are very common in phishing emails, whereas legitimate companies will often address you by name.

    Suspicious Links

    Hover over any links to preview the actual destination URL. Watch for mismatched or suspicious URLs.

    Requests for Login Credentials

    Legitimate companies will never send unsolicited emails asking you to directly submit your password, Social Security Number, or other sensitive credentials.

    Threats or Urgency

    Messages threatening account suspension or stating there is a critical problem with your account that requires immediate action are red flags of a scam.

    Poor Spelling and Grammar

    Phishing emails often contain typos, grammatical errors, awkward phrasing, and other indicators that it was not sent from a legitimate organization.

    Attachments from Unknown Senders

    Never open attachments in unsolicited emails, as they can contain embedded malware.

    Always trust your instincts – if an email seems suspicious, it very well may be part of a phishing attempt.

    How to Protect Yourself from Phishing

    While you can never be completely immune to phishing attempts, there are important steps you can take to reduce your risk and detect scams more effectively:

    Be Wary of Requests for Personal Information

    Never disclose personal, financial, or login information via email, text messages, pop-ups, or over the phone unless you initiated the contact and are certain of the source.

    Hover Over Links Before Clicking

    Preview the actual destination of any links before clicking, and look for odd or deceptive URLs that could indicate a fake site. Avoid clicking links in emails altogether when possible.

    Use Caution on Public Wi-Fi

    Public Wi-Fi makes it easier for scammers to intercept your internet traffic. Avoid accessing sensitive accounts or data over public networks.

    Install Anti-Phishing Browser Extensions

    Browser extensions like Netcraft or Web of Trust can identify known phishing sites and warn you before visiting them.

    Keep Devices Updated

    Regularly update your devices and antivirus software to patch vulnerabilities and enhance phishing detection. Disable macros in Office files from untrusted senders.

    Be Selective When Sharing Information

    Minimize the amount of personal information you share online, especially on social media sites. Provide the minimum details necessary.

    Check Account Statements Frequently

    Routinely log in to your financial accounts to check for any unauthorized activity, which could indicate your credentials were phished.

    Report Phishing Attempts

    Notify banks, companies, or authorities of any suspicious emails or activities so they can warn others and track phishing campaigns.

    Educate Yourself on Phishing Techniques

    Stay informed on the latest phishing tactics so you can better recognize the warning signs. Avoid taking phishing bait when in doubt.

    Conclusion

    Phishing presents a dangerous threat in today’s hyperconnected world, as scammers become ever more sophisticated at impersonating trusted sources and pressuring victims into relinquishing valuable data and credentials. By learning to identify telltale signs of phishing attempts, exercising caution online, keeping software updated, and protecting your personal information, users can dramatically reduce their risk of becoming the next phishing victim. Staying vigilant and using common sense when interacting digitally provides the best defense against having your identity or finances compromised through phishing.