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What is phishing, and how to prevent it

“Your password has expired. Click here to change it now.” Let’s be honest — most people would click on the link without a second thought. We receive suspicious emails like these all the time, and we tend to follow the sent links almost automatically. That’s why phishing attacks are so effective and dangerous.

Aurelija Andriekutė

Aurelija Andriekutė

What is phishing, and how to prevent it

What is phishing?

Phishing is a type of online fraud in which attackers try to trick you into giving them personal details, such as passwords, financial information, or personal identification numbers (PINs), by pretending to be a trustworthy person or organization. They might do this by sending you an email, text message, or social media message that appears to be from a legitimate source but is actually a fake.

This type of scam usually appeals to people’s emotions, which clouds their judgment. Phishing scams have been around since the early days of the internet, but it’s still one of the most widespread forms of a cyberattack: there were more than 225 million email phishing attacks in 2022 alone.

Attackers usually use phishing tactics to get money. It can be as simple as tricking a person into making a bank transfer. But some cybercriminals use malware to get more information about a person or a company that could be sold online. Emails are the most popular form of phishing. Some are so thoroughly researched and well done that it can be hard to spot a fake.

For more information, check out our YouTube video explaining how a phishing attack works:

How does phishing work?

There are many ways that phishers can try to trick you into giving them sensitive information or access to your devices. They may try to lure you into clicking on a link or downloading an attachment that contains malware or spyware, which can give them access to your computer or phone. They may also try to get you to enter your sensitive information on a fake website that looks legitimate but is controlled by the attackers.

It’s important to be cautious when you receive unusual requests for personal information or when you are asked to click on a link or download an attachment from someone you don’t know.

Here are the main manipulation techniques phishers use to hook you:

  • Social engineering. Social engineering attacks rely on human interaction to trick people into breaking standard security procedures or giving away sensitive data. This form of psychological manipulation aims to influence a person to take an action that may not be in their best interest.
  • Link manipulation. This is a type of online tactic that involves manipulating the appearance of a malicious link to deceive or mislead victims. People may end up clicking on a link they might not otherwise click on.
  • Filter evasion. This is a technique to bypass or avoid filters that block or restrict access to certain content on the internet.

The dangers of phishing

The number of dangerous phishing attacks is increasing dramatically every year. This is because phishing is extremely efficient and requires little effort while generating significant financial gain.

Let’s take a closer look at the dangers of phishing:

  • Identity theft. If a phisher can obtain your personal information, they may be able to use it to steal your identity and commit financial fraud.
  • Loss of money. Phishers may trick you into giving them access to your bank accounts or credit cards, allowing them to steal money or make unauthorized purchases.
  • Damage to reputation. If a phisher is able to obtain sensitive information, they may be able to use it to damage the reputation of a company or individual.
  • Loss of sensitive data. Phishers may also target you or organizations to steal sensitive data, such as trade secrets or intellectual property.
  • Installation of malware. Some phishing attacks may involve tricking people into downloading malware, which can then be used to gain access to their devices and steal information.

Beware of the dangers of phishing and browse responsibly. Be cautious about clicking on links to malicious websites or downloading attachments from unconfirmed sources. Always use strong and unique passwords, and remain vigilant.

How to recognize a phishing attack

Phishers have methods of tricking their victims into clicking on a link or downloading a malicious file. But if you keep an eye out, you can stay one step ahead of the cybercriminals. There are several ways to recognize a phishing attack:

  • Look for a sense of urgency in the message. Most phishing attacks rely on people’s fear of missing out to drive them toward questionable decisions. A sweet deal that’s available for a very short time might lead a hardcore fan of a brand to click on the link in their email or SMS without stopping to see whether it’s legit.
  • Check for spelling and grammar errors. Are there grammatical errors? Does the overall tone of the message seem off? These things point to a potential phishing scam. Legitimate companies and organizations generally have well-written and error-free communications.
  • Be wary of unexpected attachments or links. Businesses are unlikely to send newsletters, alert emails, or other messages with attachments — they have no reason to do so. And be cautious of malicious links, especially if you didn’t expect the email. Never download and open them.
  • Be suspicious of generic greetings. Malicious emails are often sent to large groups of people and may use generic greetings such as “Dear customer” rather than your name.
  • Make sure you are familiar with the sender. If a particular service never contacted you before with alerts on changed passwords or sent you special offers that seem too good to be true, it’s likely not them contacting you now.

Remember – scammers are becoming more sophisticated, and these recognition methods may not always work. Always stay skeptical when you receive unsolicited emails, messages, or calls, no matter how tempting it may sound.

Different types of phishing attacks

Scammers use many phishing techniques to trick their victims into giving out their personally identifiable information. Here are the main types of phishing:

Email phishing

Email phishing is a type of cyber attack that uses email as the primary means of deception. An email phishing attack aims to trick the recipient into taking action, such as clicking on a link, downloading an attachment, or providing personal information.

Spear phishing

Attacks tailored and targeted at a specific individual are called spear phishing attacks. Before sending out the phishing email, the attacker researches their target. This includes information from their public accounts, data breaches they might’ve been a part of, and anything the hacker can find about them or the company they work for. With all this information, the cybercriminal can pretend to be trustworthy — posing as a coworker, old friend, or a representative of a popular service the victim often uses.

Whaling

Whaling is another form of spear phishing where the attacker pretends to be a high-ranking member of a company: chief officer, board member, major shareholder, etc. They are trickier to impersonate, so the cybercriminal must put a lot more work into making it believable. However, as senior members have more influence in the company, the gains are usually much greater. Their employees transfer funds or give out confidential information without asking too many questions.

Clone phishing

The attacker needs a way to closely monitor their victim’s inbox for this type of phishing to work. They take a recently received email (preferably with a link or an attachment) and make a clone. Most of it is left the same, but the attachment contains malware, or the link redirects to a fake website.

Vishing

Vishing attacks rely heavily on social engineering, creating stressful situations that push people to act without thinking. Attackers often try to scare their victims by claiming that someone tried to use their credit card, that they forgot to pay a fine, etc. Unfortunately, they often succeed. When people let emotions cloud their judgment, they give away online banking details and other personal details without thinking it through.

Smishing

Smishing, or SMS phishing, is a phishing technique when a fraudster sends an SMS message that appears to be from a reputable organization. The message may ask the recipient to click on a link to provide personal information or confirm account details. The link in the message may lead to a website that looks legitimate but is actually a phishing site designed to steal personal information.

Angler phishing

Angler phishing is a new phishing technique used on social networks. Attackers pose as customer support agents on social networks to swindle victims out of their personal data or account details.

Calendar phishing

Calendar phishing uses calendar invites to trick people into clicking on a malicious link. The attacker will send a calendar invite to the target, and the event will contain a link to a malicious website. The link leads to a phishing website or a site that will install malware on the victim’s device.

What to do in case of phishing

If you’ve fallen victim to a phishing scam or suspect one, acting as quickly as possible is essential. The following describes what you should do if you receive a phishing email and what to do if you fall for a phishing scam.

What to do if you suspect a phishing attempt?

If you receive an email or a message asking to click on a link or download an attachment, make sure you know the sender or the company trying to reach out to you, and only proceed after checking first.

If you receive an email from a company you know, try contacting them by other means. Look for their phone number or an official email address and ask if the request is legitimate.

If you do not have any relation with the company that has sent you the message, check the above paragraph on “How to recognize a phishing attack?” and look for the signs of a phishing attack. If the email is suspicious, report to the Federal Crime Commission and delete it.

What to do if you are a victim of phishing?

Even if you’ve familiarized yourself with the most common phishing signs, some fake websites are so sophisticated you may give out your personal or financial information without realizing it’s a scam.

You must react immediately if you’ve entered your banking information into a malicious website from a phishing email. Contact your bank’s customer support and report the incident. They will take action against the illegal usage of your details.

If you’ve given out personal information like your Social Security number, contact details, or home address, go to IdentifyTheft.gov. There you will find information on how to act further.

How to protect yourself from phishing?

  • Use spam filters. The best way to avoid phishing emails is to prevent them from landing in your inbox. This will protect you from accidentally opening an email with malicious links and attachments.
  • Get an attachment filter. NordVPN’s Threat Protection feature is designed to protect you from phishing attempts. It’s a security feature that keeps you safe when browsing and protects you from malware. It scans your files during download and blocks malicious content before it reaches your device.
  • Learn to recognize it. You can learn to spot phishing emails easily with a little bit of practice. Even the little things matter – if your manager always signs their emails with “Thanks!” but writes “Best regards” out of nowhere, it’s best to double-check with them. When it comes to company secrets and large sums of money, you can never be too careful.
  • Keep your software updated. Keeping your software up to date is essential in protecting yourself from security vulnerabilities and cyberattacks. Software updates usually include protection against the latest threat factors.
  • Use a password manager. Create and store complex, unique passwords for each of your online accounts.
  • Stay vigilant. Be skeptical, and do not hesitate to verify the authenticity of any email or website. Contact the company or the person the email was supposed to be coming from by other means to verify.

Online security starts with a click.

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Aurelija Andriekutė
Aurelija Andriekutė Aurelija Andriekutė
Aurelija is a copywriter at NordVPN. She's eager to help her readers explore what makes the internet run and how to stay safe online.