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Phishing Attack – What is it and How Does it Work?

In today’s cybersecurity landscape, phishing attacks have become one of the hot topics as many organizations have faced it every now or then. It is a social engineering cyberattack that has brought some of the most devastating attacks in cloud history. 

This type of cyberattack is easy to carry out, and it is done with the intent of stealing a lot of valuable information. According to a recent Data Breach Investigation Report made by Verizon, phishing attacks have emerged as one of the common root causes of many data breaches. 

Research made by Tessian showed that, on average, an employee gets 14 phishing emails per year. So, have you ever faced such a cyberattack and want to know more about phishing attacks? 

In this article, we will dig deep into phishing attacks and understand how it works. To get an in-depth understanding, we will talk about types of phishing attacks, signs of attack, how dangerous they can be, and how you can protect your organization.

Let’s get started with this article:

What is Phishing?

Phishing refers to a type of social engineering attack where a malicious actor masquerading as a trusted person or reliable source sends an email or message to a user. Through messages or emails, the attacker tries to lure the victim into performing different activities, such as passing financial information, clicking malicious links, or installing malicious fails. 

The primary intent of this attack ranges from stealing financial information, getting personal information for stealing and transferring sums of money to corporate espionage and highly-sophisticated ransomware. It is a common type of attack to manipulate users to pass various sensitive information. 

Since many organizations expect emails from different sources like partner organizations, insurance companies, and others, it provides an opportunity for attackers to put their emails as legitimate ones. This type of social engineering attack is quite common in most security incidents, and such an attack can lead to devastating results. 

This kind of attack is often done by amalgamating them with other cyber threats like network attacks, code injection, and malware. At its core, it might seem like a basic attack, but it has caused major damage to many organizations.

How Phishing Works?

How Phishing Works

Phishing works in a simple manner, and whatever the malicious intent, the process starts with a message that is sent via email, text, or any other means. These attacks vary according to their intent, complexity, and scale, but they usually follow a similar type of pattern. Here are the five stages of a phishing attack:

Choosing a Target

The first task of the attack is to choose a target, which can be a large organization or a specific individual. The target is chosen based on the intent of the attack, and in general, attacks like to target large organizations to reap larger rewards. 

Based on the target, the attacker gathers all the potential details, such as names, emails, official activities, and possible interests.

Registering a Domain

After analyzing the target’s activity and interests, the malicious actors create a domain that is similar to the victim’s bank, operation page, or workplace. 

The attacker mostly registers domain names so that they can redirect the victims from the email or message to the targeted destination. To masquerade the true destination of the attached link in the phishing mail, the attackers often use URL shortening services like bit.ly, but this requires more technical support.

Crafting the Message

Now comes the main part, where the attacker crafts the message so that it appears to have come from a known contact or a trusted source. The messages are often kept simple, with a few lines of text along with the attached link or sometimes a well-decorated branded email from a well-known source like a partner organization or bank.

Weaponizing the Message

In this stage, the attacker has to weaponize its phishing email or message. If the main target is to infect the victim’s system or network, then the attacker adds malware to the attached file or link. 

Sometimes malware is injected into the system through PDF and office documents. However, if the attacker wants to get the credential, then it might create a fake login page using a cloning website tool and make you believe that you are entering details at the right site.

With time attackers are getting sophisticated with their phishing attacks where they are creating almost similar authentic emails or messages and using modern marketing techniques.

Phishing Attacks: Statistics and Examples

Phishing is undoubtedly one of the most common types of cyberattack in the industry that has affected organizations for many years. Injecting malware through an attached file or malicious link serves as a popular choice for most attackers. 

A report by ZDNet stated that around 3.4 billion phishing emails are sent every day, and this is increasing with time. It translates that one email in every 4200 emails is a phishing mail. As per a statistic by Norton, there are almost 88% of organizations have been affected by spear phishing attacks. 

In a report in 2019, Symantec stated that spear phishing contributed to around 65% of cyber attacks in 2019. According to many researchers, phishing attacks are one of the costliest threats in the world, and they serve as the second most common reason for data breaches. Cofense’s Q3 2021 report stated that almost 93% of modern data breaches that happen to organizations are due to phishing attacks.

One of the primary examples of phishing attacks is the use of Qbot, which has emerged as the most common malware of 2023 and is widely used for phishing.

A fake invoice scam is another popular example of a phishing attack where the attacker uses urgency and fear to pressure the victim to make a payment for a service they haven’t ordered.

Email account expiry is a popular phishing account where the attacker sends you an email account upgrade request from a trusted email provider. The links are designed in such a way that it assures the victim that they are being led to a “safe” website.

Types of Phishing Attacks

Phishing attacks have been present in the industry for a long time, and over the years, attackers have come up with a variety of phishing attacks. Here are some popular types of phishing attacks used by malicious actors:

Email Phishing

It is one of the most common phishing attacks which happens via email. The attackers create a domain and counterfeit website of a real organization and send the victims deceptive emails to lure them. 

The emails are designed in such a way that they trick the user into opening a malicious link or downloading an infected file to gain sensitive data or inject malware. The malicious link opens the fake website, where the victim is asked to fill in their personal information.

Spear Phishing

Another phishing attack type that is widely used by attackers is spear phishing. It is a unique attack type where the attacker targets a specific victim for whom they want to get additional personal details for comprehensive phishing. 

The attackers usually have the name, email address, specific details, trusted reference, and job title of the victim, and this basic information helps the attacker manipulate the victim by providing additional details.

Smishing

Smishing is a phishing attack that is carried out through a text message on the victim’s mobile device. The attackers generally put a certain text message along with a link or return a mobile number. It is mostly done to trick victims into providing their credit card details or personal information.

Vishing

Vishing is similar to smishing, but the only difference is that the phishing attack is conducted over the phone. During the phone call, the attacker tries to impersonate any trusted individual (mostly bank employees) and asks them to provide their credit card information. 

Nowadays, vishing also includes automated phone calls in which the user is asked to provide sensitive information through a keypad.

Whaling

Whaling is a top-tier phishing attack type where attackers target CEOs, CFOs, or any senior management individual of an organization. The primary goal of this attack is to gain information that allows attackers to get privileged access to the targeted organization’s system or network. 

Besides, the attacker often creates specially crafted messages for the victim so that they can provide further sensitive information about their organization, which will help them in the next move.

Angler Phishing

Angler phishing is a modern type of attack where the malicious actor utilizes a fake social media account of a reputed organization to solicit PII from victims. 

They usually lure customers by responding to the victim’s social media posts or by contacting them through messengers to provide support or offers. The support or offer usually carries fake links where the victim is asked to provide personal information.

Pop-up Phishing

Pop-up phishing has emerged as a popular attack type where attackers are injecting pop-up messages. The pop message is generally targeted on smartphones, and it is offered as a warning or a message carrying malicious links. The pop-up messages are given to trick victims into inputting their personal information.

How Dangerous are Phishing Attacks for Your Business?

Phishing attacks on an organization can cause massive damage in terms of finances and reputation. A successful phishing attack on your business can not only hamper the operation but also lead to compliance violations. 

A significant phishing attack on your business can be done to inject ransomware, gain access to a sensitive system, or steal all the sensitive financial data. If a phishing attack happens successfully in your organization, the consequence of the attack can be serious and cause huge damage. 

You can face data loss that might originate from a ransomware attack or financial loss that happens due to a compromised bank account. Phishing attacks on your business can go beyond data and financial loss. 

The attacker, after stealing your organization’s customers or financial data, can sell them on the dark web or to your competitor. Importantly, when a major data breach happens, you will have to provide a report to the regulatory body and government that may impose fines and different types of sanctions.

What are the Signs of Phishing?

The wisest way to avoid getting impacted by a phishing attack is by knowing how to avoid them. When you are aware of the signs of phishing, it can save your organization in many ways. Here are some key signs you should be aware of:

Unfamiliar Request

When you receive an email with an unfamiliar request and ask you to perform a specific action without any explanation, then it might be a phishing attack. The attacker may pose an administrator team and ask you to furnish some credentials; then you can understand it is malicious mail.

Creating a Sense of Urgency

Attackers, through phishing messages or emails, always create a sense of urgency and compel users to perform specific functions. For example, a malicious actor might create a phishing mail mentioning that your corporate bank account has been compromised and you need to make changes through the attached link.

Inconsistency in Domain Name

An easy way to identify phishing is by going through the inconsistency in the domain name, email address, and link. The attacker may pose as a reputed brand, but it will be different from the original. Hovering the mouse over the link is always a smart move to check the actual link destination.

Grammatical and Spelling Errors

Grammatical and spelling errors are one of the easiest ways to identify a particular mail as a phishing email. Many automated spell checkers will highlight the spelling mistakes and it will help you identify the phishing sign.

Writing Style

The written style of the message or email can help you determine whether it is a phishing message or not. A message with a poor tone or informal greeting should give you the clue that the message hasn’t originated from the actual source. 

Even though modern phishing attacks have become sophisticated, signoff and greeting styles can help you identify phishing.

Short Message

Phishing emails are often kept short without much information. If you find any email that lacks all the essential details, then it can be a phishing attempt.

Requesting Payment Information or Credentials

Usually, attackers, through phishing emails, ask to enter payment information or credentials through a fake login page. However, banks or institutions don’t ask for payment information or credentials all of a sudden, so you can understand it is a phishing attack. Even if you have to make changes, it is best to visit the login page directly.

How to Protect Your Organization from Phishing?

Phishing attacks are dangerous, but with the right approach, you can prevent most of the phishing types. Here are a few ways that can help you protect your organization: 

Implementing Appropriate Anti-Phishing Measures

To protect your system from phishing, you should focus on implementing appropriate anti-phishing solutions along with spam filters and anti-virus. When you have the right solutions in place, it will filter out phishing attempts and help you maintain optimum security posture.

Employee Awareness

Along with implementing an anti-phishing solution, you also need to conduct awareness programs for your employees regarding phishing attacks and how they can identify phishing attempts. The awareness program should cover how employees should identify a trusted website and be assured it is not a fake site.

Email Security

It would be a smart move to implement a highly effective email security solution because it can help in filtering out suspicious mail that might lead to phishing attacks. 

The email security solution can not only identify malicious links and spam content but also attachments that might contain malware. Some solutions even utilize sandboxing technology to check whether mail contains malware or not.

Using Multi-Factor Authentication

Implementing multi-factor authentication will create an additional layer of defense between the system and the attacker. The attacker has to go through additional verification to get their hands on sensitive data. Even if the attacker gets hold of the username and password, they will require additional verification to get entry.

Utilizing Phishing Attack Test

Another effective measure you can utilize is conducting simulated phishing attacks. This test will not only evaluate your employee’s awareness of phishing attacks but also the effectiveness of the awareness program and how they perceive the attack. 

Since phishing attacks are evolving with time, the phishing attack test should also evolve and it should be conducted at regular intervals.

Limiting User Access to Sensitive Data

Privileged accounts are the primary target of cyber attackers during phishing attacks. However, the impact of phishing can be limited by restricting user access to the system that will protect the sensitive. Enforcing the least privilege will restrict user access and only provide access to specific databases that they need for operation.

Automated Data Backup

Your organization should conduct regular backups of all the sensitive data to a remote server that is completely off the grid. This sensitive data would be helpful if there is an unfortunate data breach due to phishing. The backup data can be used for recovery and you can use it to maintain business workflow.

Phishing Protection and Prevention with CloudDefense.AI

When you have CloudDefense.AI by your side, phishing protection and prevention won’t be a concern for you. CloudDefense.AI offers you a combination of web app security, data protection, and ransomware to help you prevent your organization from phishing attacks. 

This platform makes use of Zero Trust protection, real-time monitoring, and rapid incident response to protect your system from any kind of phishing attack. The use of advanced threat protection ensures that if there is any attack, all the data is protected before being extracted. 

The chance of data loss is minimal with CloudDefense.AI because it takes an effective remediation process and recovers lost data with a simple command. To learn more about how CloudDefense.AI  helps you with phishing protection and prevention, you should request a live demo.

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Anshu Bansal
Anshu Bansal
Anshu Bansal, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist, currently co-founds CloudDefense.AI, a cybersecurity solution with a mission to secure your business by rapidly identifying and removing critical risks in Applications and Infrastructure as Code. With a background in Amazon, Microsoft, and VMWare, they contributed to various software and security roles.
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