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Cybersecurity Fundamentals

What Is a Phishing Attack?

Phishing attacks are a common cyber threat that abuses digital communication platforms to deceive victims. Attackers impersonate trusted authority figures through email, SMS messages, phone calls, and other media to convince their victims to give up financial information, login credentials, or some other kind of sensitive data. 

 Phishing attacks are closely related to social engineering, because most attacks leverage social engineering techniques. Unlike technical cybersecurity threats like SQL injection, phishing is a human-centric attack that focuses on psychological manipulation more than technical capability. 

This makes protecting against phishing attacks a complex challenge for enterprise IT leaders. Technical solutions help, but must be supported by cultural initiatives, awareness training, and zero-trust security architecture. 

What types of phishing attacks exist? 

Most phishing attacks fall into one of the following categories: 

  • Email phishing is by far the most common method attackers use. Deceptive emails can trick employees into giving up account credentials, personal information, or intellectual properties and trade secrets. 
  • Clone phishing is a type of email phishing attack that duplicates a legitimate email that someone previously sent. Threat actors may substitute the email’s attachment with a malicious lookalike and send it to the same recipient, hoping they’ll open the cloned message. 
  • Spear phishing is a more targeted version of email phishing. In this type of attack, threat actors spend more time and effort inventing a convincing story to compromise privileged account holders and other high-value targets. 
  • Whaling, also known as CEO fraud, focuses on impersonating high-ranking executives. Attackers abuse the executive’s authority to trick subordinates into carrying out the steps of an attack or send money to attacker-controlled bank accounts. 
  • Smishing uses SMS messages to deceive victims into giving up data or installing malware. The malicious message is often disguised as a security alert or some other emergency. 
  • Vishing tricks victims using voice-altering software to impersonate specific people. New AI-powered voice software has recently made this kind of attack easier to conduct than ever before. 

Phishing techniques explained 

Phishing messages rely on a variety of techniques to deceive victims. Although the details change between different attacks, many phishing techniques fall into one of the following broad categories: 

  • Account deactivation scams. These phishing scams trick users into believing their accounts will be deactivated if they do not immediately act. The messages often state that users will be locked out of their accounts and unable to interact with apps they use on a daily basis. 
  • Advance-fee scams. The famous “Nigerian prince” scam belongs to this category. First, the victim is told they will receive a large amount of money or something else of value. Before receiving it, they must pay a small upfront fee. Upon payment, the attacker simply disappears with the money. 
  • Spoofed website scams. Hackers can easily create websites that look exactly like the ones published by well-known brands. Entering your login credentials into a spoofed website instantly shares those credentials with the hacker responsible—who will then try using those credentials on every other app or account you have. 
  • Malicious attachments. Malicious email attachments can easily be made to look like legitimate files or applications. Users may not even know they are opening trojan horse malware until much later, when investigators track the attack back to its initial access point. 
  • Fraudulent forms. Hackers may compromise email and web forms to gain access to victims’ sensitive data. These forms are often included in email phishing campaigns or featured on spoofed websites. 

Which brands are impersonated the most in phishing attacks? 

Some phishing attacks are designed to end up in as many email inboxes as possible. To maximize their chances of success, threat actors impersonate reputable, well-known brands that inspire confidence and trust. 

Here are some of the brands impersonated in phishing attacks the most frequently: 

  • Microsoft 
  • Apple 
  • Google 
  • Amazon 
  • Chase 
  • Wells Fargo 
  • Bank of America 
  • FedEx 
  • DHL 

Sophisticated attackers targeting your organization may launch phishing campaigns using your brand, as well. This allows them to target your organization’s customers, employees, and third-party vendors, potentially gaining access to your network in the process. 

How to protect against phishing attacks 

Preventing phishing attacks requires an approach that leverages both prevention and detection techniques. Since such a wide range of phishing attacks exist, successfully mitigating phishing risks requires a robust organization-wide security strategy. 

Here are some of the things you can do to manage phishing risks effectively: 

  • Implement email security solutions. Email security tools like Proofpoint and IRONSCALES™ dramatically reduce the number of fraudulent emails that end up in your users’ inboxes. 
  • Configure data loss prevention (DLP) for email. If an employee tries to input login credentials or other sensitive data into a spoofed website or form, your security tools should immediately trigger an investigation. 
  • Deploy content detection and filters. Incoming email messages should be analyzed for content associated with known threats. Proofpoint can automatically block and report these emails. 
  • Identity and role-based monitoring. If threat actors take over an employee’s email account, they may expand to target critical business applications. Behavioral monitoring can provide early warning when this happens. 
  • Sanitize URL links. Email security solutions can provide point-of-click protection against malicious links, changing deceptive links back to the legitimate URL they attempt to copy. 
  • Invest in employee training. Users should not be your first line of defense against phishing attacks, but they should be able to reliably identify and report them. Phishing simulations can help train employees to spot the warning signs of phishing attacks. 

Trust Lumifi to enhance email security resilience 

Phishing is implicated in the vast majority of cyberattacks and data breaches—often as a means of initial entry. Keeping threat actors from getting a foothold in your network is one of the best ways to prevent sophisticated attacks. 

Lumifi provides comprehensive email security and visibility into phishing threats to IT leaders in organizations of all sizes. Talk to an email security specialist to find out how we can help you protect your users’ inboxes. 

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