12 Types of Phishing Attacks and How to Identify Them

By Kasey Hewitt

Posted on May 5, 2021

Phishing attacks have been around since the early days of the internet. Cybercriminals propagated the first phishing attacks in the mid-1990s, using the America Online (AOL) service to steal passwords and credit card information. While modern attacks use similar social engineering models, cybercriminals use more evolved tactics. At its core, phishing is an attack methodology that uses social engineering tactics to make a person take an action that is against their best interests. With a better understanding of the twelve types of phishing attacks and how to identify them, organizations can protect their users and their data more effectively.

1. Email phishing

    Also called “deception phishing,” email phishing is one of the most well-known attack types. Malicious actors send emails to users impersonating a known brand, leverage social engineering tactics to create a heightened sense of immediacy and then lead people to click on a link or download an asset.

    The links traditionally go to malicious websites that either steal credentials or install malicious code, known as malware, on a user’s device. The downloads, usually PDFs, have malicious content stored in them that installs the malware once the user opens the document.

    How to identify email phishing:

    Most people recognize some of the primary indicators of a phishing email. However, for a quick refresher, some traditional things to look for when trying to mitigate risk include:

    • Legitimate information: Look for contact information or other legitimate information about the organization being spoofed, then look to identify things like misspellings or a sender email address that has the wrong domain.
    • Malicious and benign code: Be aware of anything including code that tries to trick Exchange Online Protection (EOP) such as downloads or links that have misspellings.
    • Shortened links: Do not click on any shortened links because these are used to fool Secure Email Gateways.
    • Fake brand logo: Review the message for any logos that look real because they may contain fake, malicious HTML attributes.
    • Little text: Ignore emails that have only an image and very little text because the image might be hiding malicious code.

    2. HTTPS phishing

    The hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) is often considered a “safe” link to click because it uses encryption to increase security. Most legitimate organizations now use HTTPS instead of HTTP because it establishes legitimacy. However, cybercriminals are now leveraging HTTPS in the links that they put into phishing emails.

    How to identify HTTPS phishing

    While often part of an email phishing attack, this is a slightly nuanced approach. When trying to decide if a link is legitimate or not, consider:

    • Shortened link: Make sure that the link is in its original, long-tail format and shows all parts of the URL.
    • Hypertext: These are “clickable” links embedded into the text to hide the real URL.

    3. Spear phishing

      Although spear phishing uses email, it takes a more targeted approach. Cybercriminals start by using open source intelligence (OSINT) to gather information from published or publicly available sources like social media or a company’s website. Then, they target specific individuals within the organization using real names, job functions, or work telephone numbers to make the recipient think the email is from someone else inside the organization. Ultimately, because the recipient believes this is an internal request, the person takes the action mentioned in the email.

      How to identify spear phishing:

      • Abnormal request: Look out for internal requests that come from people in other departments or seem out of the ordinary considering job function.
      • Shared drive links: Be wary of links to documents stored on shared drives like Google Suite, O365, and Dropbox because these can redirect to a fake, malicious website.
      • Password-protected documents: Any documents that require a user login ID and password may be an attempt to steal credentials.

      4. Whaling/CEO fraud

        Another type of corporate phishing that leverages OSINT is whale phishing, also called whaling or CEO fraud. Malicious actors use social media or the corporate website to find the name of the organization’s CEO or another senior leadership member. They then impersonate that person using a similar email address. The email might ask for a money transfer or request that the recipient review a document.

        How to identify CEO fraud:

        • Abnormal request: If a senior leadership member has never made contact before, be wary of taking the requested action.
        • Recipient email: Since many people use email applications that connect all their email addresses, make sure that any request that appears normal is sent to a work email not personal.

        5. Vishing

          Voice phishing, or “vishing,” happens when a cybercriminal calls a phone number and creates a heightened sense of urgency that makes a person take an action against their best interests. These calls normally occur around stressful times. For example, many people receive fake phone calls from people purporting to be the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) during tax season, indicating that they want to do an audit and need a social security number. Because the call creates a sense of panic and urgency, the recipient can be tricked into giving away personal information.

          How to identify vishing:

          • Caller number: The number might be from an unusual location or blocked.
          • Timing: The call’s timing coincides with a season or event that causes stress.
          • Requested action: The call requests personal information that seems unusual for the type of caller.

          6. Smishing

            Malicious actors often apply similar tactics to different types of technologies. Smishing is sending texts that request a person take an action. These are the next evolution of vishing. Often, the text will include a link that, when clicked, installs malware on the user’s device.

            How to identify smishing:

            • Delivery status change: A text requesting that the recipient take action to change a delivery will include a link so always look for emails or go directly to the delivery service website to check status.
            • Abnormal area code: Review the area code and compare it to your contacts list before responding to a text or taking a suggested action.

            7. Angler phishing

            As malicious actors move between attack vectors, social media has become another popular location for phishing attacks. Similar to both vishing and smishing, angler phishing is when a cybercriminal uses notifications or direct messaging features in a social media application to entice someone into taking action.

            How to identify angler phishing:

            • Notifications: Be wary of notifications that indicate being added to a post because these can include links that drive recipients to malicious websites.
            • Abnormal direct messages: Be on the lookout for direct messages from people who rarely use the feature since the account might be spoofed, or fraudulently recreated.
            • Links to websites: Never click a link in a direct message, even if it looks legitimate, unless the sender regularly shares interesting links this way.

            8. Pharming

              Pharming is more technical and often more difficult to detect. The malicious actors hijack a Domain Name Server (DNS), the server that translates URLs from natural language into IP addresses. Then, when a user types in the website address, the DNS server redirects the user to a malicious website’s IP address that might look real.

              How to identify pharming:

              • Insecure website: Look for a website that is HTTP, not HTTPS.
              • Website inconsistencies: Be aware of any inconsistencies that indicate a fake website, including mismatched colors, misspellings, or strange fonts.

              9. Pop-up phishing

                Although most people use pop-up blockers, pop-up phishing is still a risk. Malicious actors can place malicious code in the small notification boxes, called pop-ups, that show up when people go to websites. The newer version of pop-up phishing uses the web browser’s “notifications” feature. For example, when a person visits a website, the browser prompts the person with “www.thisisabadlifechoice.com wants to show notifications.” When the user clicks “Allow,” the pop-up installs malicious code.

                How to identify pop-up phishing:

                • Irregularities: Review for spelling errors or abnormal color schemes.
                • Shift to full-screen mode: Malicious pop-ups can turn a browser to full-screen mode so any automatic change in screen size might be an indicator.

                10. Clone phishing

                  Another targeted email phishing attack, clone phishing, leverages services that someone has previously used to trigger the adverse action. Malicious actors know most of the business applications that require people to click links as part of their daily activities. They will often engage in research to see what types of services an organization uses regularly then send targeted emails that appear to come from these services. For example, many organizations use DocuSign to send and receive electronic contracts, so malicious actors might create fake emails for this service.

                  How to identify clone phishing:

                  • Abnormal timing: Be wary of any unexpected email from a service provider, even one that is part of normal daily job function.
                  • Personal information: Look out for emails requesting personal information that the service provider never asks for.

                  11. Evil twin

                    An evil twin phishing attack uses a fake WiFi hotspot, often making it look legitimate, that might intercept data during transfer. If someone uses the fake hotspot, the malicious actors can engage in man-in-the-middle or eavesdropping attacks. This allows them to collect data like login credentials or sensitive information transferred across the connection.

                    How to identify an evil twin phishing attack:

                    • “Unsecure”: Be wary of any hotspot that triggers an “unsecure” warning on a device even if it looks familiar.
                    • Requires login: Any hotspot that normally does not require a login credential but suddenly prompts for one is suspicious.

                    12. Watering hole phishing

                      Another sophisticated phishing attack, watering hole phishing starts with malicious actors doing research around the websites a company’s employees visit often, then infecting the IP address with malicious code or downloads. These can be websites that provide industry news or third-party vendors’ websites. When the user visits the website, they download the malicious code.

                      How to identify watering hole phishing:

                      • Pay attention to browser alerts: If a browser indicates that a site might have malicious code, do not continue through to the website, even if it’s one normally used.
                      • Monitor firewall rules: Ensure that firewall rules are continuously updated and monitored to prevent inbound traffic from a compromised website.

                      How to prevent phishing

                      Although phishing starts with social engineering tactics, some newer methodologies can be difficult for users to detect. Taking multiple steps to prevent malicious actors from successfully infiltrating systems, networks, and software can mitigate phishing risks.

                      Train your people

                      The first line of defense is ensuring that employees have the training necessary to protect information. As malicious actors evolve their methodologies, you should provide training that goes beyond the traditional “phishing emails” approach. Any phishing awareness training should also include newer methodologies, like watering hole phishing attacks.

                      Use email filters

                      Although normally associated with “spam filters,” email filters can also scan for additional risks indicating an attempted phishing attack. For example, cybercriminals often hide malicious code in a PDF’s active content or the coding that enables things like readability and editability. Finding the right email filtering solution can help reduce the number of risky phishing emails that make it through to users.

                      Install website alerts in browsers

                      Protecting against malicious websites is more important than ever. Recognizing that organizations are filtering emails more purposefully, cybercriminals now target website code. Make sure that end-users’ browsers alert them to potentially risky websites.

                      Limit access to the internet

                      Using access control lists (ALCs) is another way to mitigate the risks arising from malicious websites. You can create access controls for your networks that “deny all” access to certain websites and web-based applications.

                      Require multi-factor authentication

                      Since malicious actors often look to steal user credentials, requiring multi-factor authentication can mitigate this risk. You want to require users to provide two or more of the following every time they log into your networks, systems, and applications:

                      • Something they know: a password or passphrase
                      • Something they have: a device or token (an authentication application on a device, a keycard, or a code texted to a smartphone)
                      • Something they are: a biometric (a fingerprint or facial ID)

                      Monitor for and takedown fake websites

                      Organizations in highly targeted industries, like financial services and healthcare, often use companies who can monitor for and spend time taking down spoofed versions of their websites. This is a way to protect your employees and customers who click on a malicious link from giving cybercriminals their login credentials.

                      Install security patch updates regularly

                      Many phishing attacks exploit common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs), or known security weaknesses. To prevent this, make sure to regularly install security updates that respond to these known risks.

                      Set regular data backup

                      Often, phishing attacks leave behind malware, which can also include ransomware. To mitigate the impact that ransomware can have on your organization’s productivity, create a robust data backup program that follows the 3-2-1 method of 3 copies of data, on 2 different media, with 1 being offsite.

                      SecurityScorecard: Promoting resiliency by monitoring risk

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                      With SecurityScorecard’s platform, you can gain insight into potential security weaknesses that can make phishing attacks successful.

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