What’s phishing? Learn to protect yourself and your organization

Yaron Dror

January 11, 2023

  • # Phishing Protection
  • # Account Protection

Safeguarding your sensitive information is a must to stop cyber threats like theft and impersonation. To protect yourself or your business from these hazards, you must stay informed about cyber scams — including phishing. 

Our ultimate guide will teach you what a phishing attack is, how to spot one, and what steps you can take to prevent these malicious data grabs and protect you or your organization from phishing.

What’s a phishing attack? 

Phishing is a deceitful tactic where malicious attackers send fake emails, SMSs, and other types of messages to trick (or “spoof” in phishing terms) users into giving away information like passwords, personal information, or account numbers. Their success results in a data breach, or unauthorized access to confidential information. 

Once they gain that access, they can perform other malicious acts, such as stealing logins or deploying malware (harmful software that gives hackers access to systems and private information). These attacks can affect just about any organization or individual, and some phishers won’t shy away from the challenge of duping even the most formidable target.

Phishing scams are part of a bigger category of attacks called social engineering. This includes different methods — beyond emails and texts — to gain access to valuable data. But the common thread among this group of attacks is that they take advantage of people’s trust and emotions to gather information.

The risks of phishing attacks

Phishing can create chaos for your company, finances, and identity security. For example, phishing scammers tricked Facebook and Google into sending $100 million between 2013 and 2015 just by sending them fake invoices, which the companies paid. Individuals regularly suffer the consequences of smaller phishing attacks, too — losing money, access to accounts, and control of identity information like social security numbers. Here are a few of the most common risks: 

  • Theft: A phisher with access to your personal data could hack into your bank accounts and take out money. Phishers may also approach companies with fake invoices that your accounts payable team will fulfill believing they’re legitimate.

  • Identity theft: A cyber criminal who steals your personal information, like your social security number, could use it to access your money, open credit cards, or acquire property (like a house or car) via a loan in your name. 

  • Reputation damage: A phishing attack that risks employees' personal data or negatively impacts your company’s finances can be a red flag for customers and investors. These attacks can make the organization look unprotected or — worse — careless.  

How attackers work

Cyber criminals work hard to devise plots anyone could fall for, and no organization’s security plan is truly bulletproof. Get one step ahead of the phishers by understanding how they work: 

  • Industry targets: According to Statista, phishers target the financial industry above all. Email services, social media, and logistics companies also top the list. 

  • Days and times: Phishers know when to attack, like on Friday afternoon when people are daydreaming about the weekend and likelier to let their guard down. These cyber criminals also tend to attack before lunch on weekdays once employees have been at their desks for a while and are working quickly, making moves out of habit.

  • Language tricks: Phishers manipulate message recipients with language to trigger an emotional response. They prey on your anxiety with seemingly urgent subject lines, like “Expires in 1 day,” or they pull on your heartstrings by making you feel like you’ll miss out on an opportunity if you don’t take action.

Common types of phishing emails

People in your company could have trouble telling the difference between a well-intended email and an email phishing scam, which could land you in hot water. Up your security awareness by learning how phishers tend to frame their messaging:

  • Urgency: Phishing emails often express a sense of urgency, making you feel pressured to take action. For example, a message allegedly from your e-mail provider might ask you to immediately change your password or risk losing access to your accounts. If it’s a phishing scheme, you’ll be giving personal information to a cyber criminal when you “change” your password. 

  • Fear of missing out (FOMO): No one wants to miss out on a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and phishers leverage that human desire to trap victims. A FOMO message might have a subject line that reads “Don’t miss out on an incredible investment opportunity,” baiting you to follow a link to learn more and accidentally give over your information.

  • Authority: Authority messages are confident and direct. These emails often address you by name, making you feel like you must know the sender. The message might open with a line like, “Ann, this invoice needs to be processed today or the company will lose this account.”

  • Emotion or fear: These messages prey on another strong human emotion, usually fear, to convince you to take action or suffer embarrassing or painful consequences. The sender might claim they have compromising photos of you on a website (albeit a fake website), pressuring you to pay to remove them.

Phishing damage for organizations

When phishing targets an individual or particular group (known as spear phishing, thanks to its targeted nature), there can be severe consequences for the people involved. That effect multiplies when a phishing attack hits an organization, warranting extensive damage control. Here are a few consequences phishing can cause on an organizational level.  

Financial damage

The costs and financial damages of a successful phishing attack can hit hard:

  • Direct monetary losses

  • User downtime resulting in lost sales or customers

  • Remediation time and associated costs

  • Compliance fines

  • Loss of revenue and customers

  • Legal fees

  • Reputation damage (which can spur further financial losses)

Technical/data loss

A phishing attack can cause severe setbacks for an organization’s computing and security initiatives. Here are a few issues technical issues that can be difficult to address or reverse: 

  • Compromised accounts and credentials

  • Malware infections

  • Ransomware, which cyber criminals use to encrypt files and demand a ransom for release 

Compromised data alone can be a significant loss and give phishers access to private information: 

  • Login credentials: Usernames and passwords 

  • Personal data: Addresses and phone numbers stored on your systems

  • Internal data: Sales figures, financial data, and customer data

  • Banking data: Credit card information and bank account information

  • Medical data: Insurance claim data and patient information

Popular phishing scams to watch out for

Phishing scams can dupe even the savviest email or internet user because the motivations in these messages are so seemingly realistic. Here are a few phishing trends affecting individuals and organizations.

Work-from-home employee scams 

Work-from-home phishing attacks target off-site employees. Email senders pose as higher-ups or HR personnel asking workers to sign into a company system. The spoofed employees who fall for the trap enter their credentials into the fake system, and phishers nab them.

Invoice scams

These spoofing attempts use urgency and authority to get email recipients to open malicious attachments that’ll copy their credentials or install malware on their computers. The email may refer to paying an overdue account and have an attachment that allegedly contains the invoice. 

Sometimes, the email and its attachment are real. In clone phishing attacks, cyber criminals copy actual emails and attachments, feigning to be the original sender. 

Whaling attacks target senior company employees (company “whales” like vice CEOs) and pressure decision-makers to make a payment. The sender poses as another high-level employee to instill authority. Whaling damages can be catastrophic, totaling millions in losses for large organizations.

Non-email scams

Phishing can extend beyond fake emails, so you need to stay vigilant for non-email tactics, too. Here are a few examples: 

  • Vishing: This term combines “voice” and “phishing” to refer to telephone attacks. The caller presents an urgent or convincing message to get your personal data, like pretending to be your bank and reporting suspicious account activity. 

  • Pharming: Pharming is a sophisticated phishing scheme in which hackers redirect traffic from a legitimate, safe website to a fraudulent one that grabs visitors’ personal information.

  • Smishing: This word combines “SMS” and “phishing” to describe data grab attempts via mobile text messages. The smisher might try to get you to click on a link to a site that takes your information.

Protective measures against phishing attacks

Cloud-based computing and shared networks pose a constant threat to digital security, making it hard to stay ahead of risks. Improve your chance of mitigating a phishing attack by implementing some helpful protective measures:

Double authentication

Double-authentication protection, as IronVest offers, is an excellent personal and organizational safeguard against phishing. This security measure helps stop cyber criminals from misusing your data if you’ve accidentally provided it to them by requiring a second layer of authentication, such as entering a code you receive by SMS or answering a security question. 

When someone maliciously tries to use your credentials, such as your bank login, you’ll get a request to authenticate the login on another device, like your phone. You can reject the login, promptly change passwords, and report phishing activity to your email provider and bank. 

Security awareness training

Everyone in an organization plays an essential role in keeping its data safe, and security awareness programs teach people how to stay alert. These programs use engaging simulated scenarios to train employees to recognize cyber vulnerabilities and avoid attacks like phishing. 

Secure email gateway (SEG)

An SEG monitors incoming and outgoing emails for malicious content. If the SEG detects spam, malware threats, or phishing attempts, it quarantines or blocks the email. 

While it’s a helpful defense against many organizational cyber attacks, an SEG can’t catch all spoofed messages. Relying solely on technology to protect a business is inherently risky — you need the keen eye of employees to look out for the latest phishing trends, too. For an added layer of phishing protection, get IronVest’s InboxGuard, which catches the emails SEGs miss.

Prevent phishing attacks with IronVest

Protect your organization from business email compromise and the ensuing financial and reputational losses with IronVest. Our services also keep you safe from more targeted spear phishing attacks, with data security for individuals. 

IronVest goes beyond protecting you from phishing. Our well-rounded security measures include safer online shopping with temporary credit cards that don’t reveal your actual digits and masked email addresses that keep your real account from criminals and spammers. With these safeguards, cyber criminals will find it exceptionally challenging to reel in your sensitive information.

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