Phishing is a form of fraud in which an attacker masquerades as a reputable entity or person in email or other communication channels. 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.
Deceptive phishing is popular with cybercriminals, as it is far easier to trick someone into clicking a malicious link in a seemingly legitimate phishing email than it is to break through a computer's defenses.
How phishing works
Phishing attacks typically rely on social networking techniques applied to email or other electronic communication methods, including direct messages sent over social networks and SMS text messages.
Phishers may use social engineering and other public sources of information, including social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, to gather background information about the victim's personal and work history, interests and activities.
Pre-phishing attack reconnaissance can uncover names, job titles and email addresses of potential victims, as well as information about their colleagues and the names of key employees in their organizations. This information can then be used to craft a believable email. Targeted attacks, including those carried out by advanced persistent threat (APT) groups, typically begin with a phishing email containing a malicious link or attachment.
Although many phishing emails are poorly written and clearly fake, cybercriminal groups increasingly use the same techniques professional marketers use to identify the most effective types of messages -- the phishing hooks that get the highest open or click-through rate and the Facebook posts that generate the most likes. Phishing campaigns are often built around major events, holidays and anniversaries, or take advantage of breaking news stories, both true and fictitious.
Typically, a victim receives a message that appears to have been sent by a known contact or organization. The attack is carried out either through a malicious file attachment that contains phishing software, or through links connecting to malicious websites. In either case, the objective is to install malware on the user's device or direct the victim to a malicious website set up to trick them into divulging personal and financial information, such as passwords, account IDs or credit card details.
How to recognize a phishing email
Successful phishing messages, usually represented as being from a well-known company, are difficult to distinguish from authentic messages. A phishing email can include corporate logos and other identifying graphics and data collected from the company being misrepresented. Malicious links within phishing messages are usually also designed to make it appear as though they go to the spoofed organization.
However, there are several clues that can indicate that a message is a phishing attempt. These include:
- The message uses subdomains, misspelled URLs (typosquatting) or otherwise suspicious URLs.
- The recipient uses a Gmail or other public email address rather than a corporate email address.
- The message is written to invoke fear or a sense of urgency.
- The message includes a request to verify personal information, such as financial details or a password.
- The message is poorly written and has spelling and grammatical errors.
Types of phishing
As defenders continue to educate their users and deploy antiphishing 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 tactics include the following:
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 co-workers or executives at the victim's organization, as well as the use of the victim's name, location or other personal information.
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.
Because, a typical whaling attack targets an employee with the ability to authorize payments, the phishing message often appears 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.
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 attempting to log in to the fraudulent site with personal credentials.
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 any number of 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 utilize 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 transmissions 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.
Voice phishing, also known as vishing, is a form of phishing that occurs over voice communications media, including voice over IP (VoIP) or plain old telephone service (POTS). 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 their identity -- thus compromising the victim's account credentials.
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 install malware.
Phishing attacks depend on more than simply sending an email to victims and hoping that they click on a malicious link or open a malicious attachment. Attackers use several techniques to entrap their victims:
- A variety of link manipulation techniques can also be used to trick victims into clicking on the link. Link manipulation is also often referred to as URL hiding and is present in many common types of phishing, and used in different ways depending on the attacker and the target. The simplest approach to link manipulation is to create a malicious URL that is displayed as if it were linking to a legitimate site or webpage, but to have the actual link point to a malicious web resource.
- Link shortening services like Bitly may be used to hide the link destination. Victims have no way of knowing whether the shortened URLs point to legitimate web resources or to malicious resources.
- Homograph spoofing depends on URLs that were created using different logical characters to read exactly like a trusted domain. For example, attackers may register domains that use different character sets that display close enough to established, well-known domains. Early examples of homograph spoofing include the use of the numerals 0 or 1 to replace the letters O or l. For example, attackers might attempt to spoof the microsoft.com domain with m!crosoft.com, replacing the letter i with an exclamation mark. Malicious domains may also replace Latin characters with Cyrillic, Greek or other character sets that display similarly.
- Rendering all or part of a message as a graphical image sometimes enables attackers to bypass phishing defenses that scan emails for particular phrases or terms common in phishing emails.
- Another phishing tactic relies on a covert redirect, where an open redirect vulnerability fails to check that a redirected URL is pointing to a trusted resource. In that case, the redirected URL is an intermediate, malicious page that solicits authentication information from the victim before forwarding the victim's browser to the legitimate site.
How to prevent phishing
Phishing defense begins with security awareness training. Security awareness training should be regularly updated to reflect new phishing techniques and teach users:
- how to identify phishing attacks;
- to be cautious of pop-ups on websites;
- to think twice before clicking on links sent via email or other messages-- users knowledgeable enough to hover over the link to see where it goes can avoid accessing malicious pages; and
- to verify a website's security by ensuring that the URL begins with "https" and that there's a closed lock icon near the address bar.
To help prevent phishing messages from reaching end users, experts recommend layering security controls, including:
- antivirus software;
- both desktop and network firewalls;
- antispyware software;
- antiphishing toolbar (installed in web browsers);
- gateway email filter;
- web security gateway;
- a spam filter; and
- phishing filters from vendors such as Microsoft.
In addition, enterprise mail servers should make use of at least one email authentication standard to confirm 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.
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.
Phishing scams come in all shapes and sizes. Users can stay safe, alert and prepared by knowing about some of the more recent ways that scammers have been phishing. A few examples of more modern phishing attacks include:
Digital payment-based scams
These happen when major payment applications and websites are used as a ruse to gain sensitive information from phishing victims. In this scam, a phisher masquerades as an online payment service (such as PayPal, Venmo or TransferWise).
Generally, these attacks are performed through email, where a fake version of a trusted payment service asks a user to verify their log in details and other identifying information. Usually, they claim that this is necessary in order to resolve an issue with the user's account. Often, these phishing attempts include a link to a fraudulent "spoof" page.
PayPal is aware of these threats and have released informational materials for their customers to reference in order to stay prepared against phishing attacks. They recommend that anyone who receives a suspicious email from an account claiming to be PayPal should not click any links, but instead, use the hovering technique outlined above to see if the link address matches PayPal's actual domain.
It is also advised to then separately log in to their account to make sure everything looks like it should. It is important to keep in mind that a fake email from a major brand like PayPal will likely have graphics and other elements that make it look legitimate.
If a user is unsure of how to spot a fraudulent online-payment phishing email, there are a few examples of how these phishing scams often look. Generally, a phishing email from PayPal has been known to include:
- Dodgy greetings that do not include the victim's name. Official emails from PayPal will always address users by their actual name or business title. Phishing attempts in this sector tend to begin with "Dear user," or use an email address instead.
- Alarming urgency works by whipping a potential victim up into a frenzy and scaring them into giving their information away. In the case of PayPal and other online payment services, this can come about in a few ways. Some of these scams "alert" their potential victims to the fact that their account will soon be suspended. Others claim that users were accidentally "overpaid" and now need to send money back to a fake account.
- Downloadable attachments are not something that PayPal sends to their users. If a person receives an email from PayPal or another similar service that includes an attachment, they should not download it.
If a person receives one of these emails, they should open their payment page on a separate browser tab or window and see if their account has any alerts. If a user has been overpaid or are facing suspension, it will say so there. Additionally, PayPal urges users to report any suspicious activity to them, so they can continue to monitor these attempts and prevent their users from getting scammed.
Finance-based phishing attacks
These are a common form of scamming, and they operate on the assumption that victims will panic into giving them personal information. Usually, in these cases, the attacker poses as a bank or other financial institution. In an email or phone call, the attacker informs their potential victim that their security has been compromised. Often, the scammer actually uses the threat of identity theft to successfully do just that.
A few examples of this tricky scam include:
- Suspicious emails about money transfers that will confuse the victim. In these phishing attempts, the potential victim receives an email that contains a receipt or rejection email regarding an AHC transfer. Often, the victim who sees this email will instantly assume fraudulent charges have been made in their account and clicks a bad link in the message, leaving their personal data vulnerable to being mined.
- Direct deposit scams are often used on new employees of a company or business. In these scams, the victims receive notice that their login information is not working. Anxious about not getting paid, the victims click a "phishy" link in the email, which leads them to a spoof website that installs malware to their system. From there, their banking information is vulnerable to harvesting, leading to fraudulent charges.
Work-related phishing scams
These are especially alarming, as this type of scam can be very personalized and hard to spot. In these cases, an attacker purporting to be the recipient's boss, CEO or CFO contacts the victim, and requests a wire transfer or other fraudulent purchase.
One work-related scam that has been popping up around businesses in the last couple of years is a ploy to harvest passwords. This scam often targets executive-level employees, who likely are not considering that an email from their boss could be a scam. The fraudulent email often works because, instead of being alarmist, it simply talks about regular workplace subjects. Usually, it informs the victim that a scheduled meeting needs to be changed.
From there, the employee is asked to fill out a poll about when a good time to reschedule would be via a link. That link will then bring the victim to a spoof login page for Office 365 or Microsoft Outlook. Once they have entered your login information, the scammers steal their password.
History of phishing
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 named so because phishing scams use lures to catch unsuspecting victims, or fish.
One 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 would then 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.
In the early 1990s, a group of individuals called the Warez Group created an algorithm that would generate credit card numbers at random in the attempt to create fake AOL accounts. The faked account would then spam other AOL accounts. Some individuals would try to change their AOL screen names to appear as AOL administrators. Using these screen names, they would then "phish" people via AOL Messenger for their information.
In the early 2000s, phishing saw more changes in implementation. The "love bug of 2000" is an example of this, where potential victims were sent an email with a message saying "ILOVEYOU," pointing to an attachment letter. That attachment held a worm that would overwrite files on the victims computer and copy itself to the user's contact list.
Also, in the early 2000s, different phishers began to register phishing websites. A phishing website is a domain that is similar in name and appearance to an official website in order to fool someone into believing it is legitimate.
Today, phishing schemes have gotten more varied, and are potentially more dangerous than before. With the integration of social media and log in methods such as "log in with Facebook," an attacker could potentially commit several data breaches on an individual using one phished password, making them vulnerable to ransomware attacks in the process. More modern technologies are also being utilized now. As an example, the CEO of an energy firm in the U.K. had thought they were speaking on the phone with their boss -- being told to send funds to a specific supplier -- when it was really a phishing scheme that utilized AI to mimic the voice of the CEO's chief executive from their parent company. It is unclear whether the attackers used bots to react to the victim's questions. If the phisher used a bot to automate the attack, it would have been more difficult for law enforcement to investigate.