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Information Security Threats: Phishing, Whaling, etc

Cartoon Representing PhishingPhishing has become a household term in recent years, and for good reason. There are news stories about it, mandatory corporate training to keep you from falling for it, and it still remains prevalent and a fruitful ways for the “bad guys” to succeed. So what is phishing? Phishing represents a range of techniques used by cybercriminals to deceive individuals into divulging sensitive information. Phishing now comes in many forms. And just like every political scandal gets -gate added as a suffix because of Watergate (Gamergate, Chinagate, Emailgate, Russiagate, etc), each of these forms of phishing gets the -ishing suffix. Clever, right?

Phishing: Your Inbox is the Battleground

The OG, Phishing is the most common form of cyber deceit. It involves sending mass emails that appear to come from reputable sources, such as banks or popular websites, with the goal of stealing sensitive data like login credentials or credit card numbers. These emails often create a sense of urgency, prompting you to act quickly with the hope that you won’t do your due diligence. Typically, the sender will appear to come from a safe domain, but will be just wrong. Some common examples are things like goolge.com instead of google.com or gimletrnedia.com instead of gimletmedia.com. Even if they don’t try to make the email sender look legit, the form you get sent you might be for a domain that is set up with those tactics. Another trick is to have a very long domain like secure.google.com.hacker.co/blah/blah/etc.php and people might only notice the “google.com” portion instead of noticing the actual domain is “hacker.co”. These people will make exact duplicates of a Google, Microsoft, Amazon, or bank login screen and then steal your credentials. Where possible, the smart ones will even pass those credentials on and get you logged into the site so you’re none the wiser.

Protection Tip: Always verify the sender’s email address and be wary of emails that demand immediate action. Legitimate organizations won’t ask for sensitive information via email.

Spear Phishing: Targeted Attacks

Spear phishing is a more targeted version of phishing, so named because the same tactics are used as phishing except that the target is very deliberate. This is the difference between dropping a fishing line in a water to catch “any fish that swims by” vs spear fishing and jabbing a spear into the water to catch “this exact fish”. With Spear Phishing, the attacker personalizes the email to fit the recipient – using your name, job title, or other personal information – making the fraudulent communication seem more credible. Often, these emails might even seem to come from a higher-up in the company and they need you to wire money to a vendor urgently, or review this document immediately (behind a phishing lure).

Protection Tip: Be cautious with the amount of personal information you share online. Regularly update your privacy settings on social media and professional platforms. Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is the key way that attackers learn this information about you to make it seem like they know you or already are in your organization.

Whaling: Going After the Big Fish

We’re keeping the metaphor going here with Whaling. Traditionally, whaling is done with harpoons (and what are harpoons but basically large spears?!?). Whaling attacks are Spear Phishing attacks that specifically target high-profile individuals like CEOs or CFOs. The emails mimic critical business communications, often involving legal or financial matters, to trick the victim into transferring funds or revealing sensitive corporate information.

Protection Tip: High-ranking individuals should be extra vigilant. Double-check the source of unexpected requests and verify through direct, secure communication channels. If possible, have the IT department put extra protection around the email accounts of key figures. Many business email providers offer this protection (Microsoft Defender for Email offers Priority Account Protection, for instance).

Vishing: The Voice of Deception

Now we’ve stopped being clever and have ventured into the “Russiagate” level of naming and have lost the metaphor and instead heading for the land of portmanteaus. Vishing, or voice phishing, involves phone calls instead of emails. The caller impersonates a trusted authority to extract personal information or financial details. If users aren’t trained well or if your organization doesn’t have the right protocols around verifying a caller, this can be an easy way to get too much information. I’ve done this myself when one of my accounts with a retailer was used without authorization. I called up and couldn’t get an answer, but I was able to get a few things from the phone agent that they didn’t mind sharing. Then I called back and had my original information plus this other information and the person on the other end of the line assumed I was okay to know more about the transaction because I knew so much already, so I must be okay. Attackers especially skilled in building trust and using social manipulation can move mountains this way.

Protection Tip: Be skeptical of unsolicited phone calls. If in doubt, hang up and contact the organization directly using an official number.

Smishing: SMS-Based Scams

Another portmanteau, Smishing is like phishing but carried out through SMS text messages. These messages may contain malicious links or request personal information. You have probably received these recently. USPS wants to tell you you have a package that can’t be delivered. The IRS wants to talk to you about your huge overdue tax bill. Your bank wants to confirm your information. None of this is something that would happen or be communicated this way unexpectedly. Never respond to a text link, but instead go to the actual site and login. Any legitimate messages for you will be there when you arrive. If you’re still in doubt, call the company using a phone number from their verified web page or a trusted directory and confirm the message. Otherwise, you’re asking for trouble.

Protection Tip: Avoid clicking on links in text messages from unknown sources. Install a reputable security app on your phone to filter out potential scams.

In the current world of online threats, knowledge and familiarity is your best defense. By understanding these tactics and adopting cautious online behaviors, you can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to these increasingly sophisticated scams. Remember, cybersecurity is a continuous process. Regularly updating your software, using strong, unique passwords, and being mindful of the information you share online are crucial steps in protecting yourself and your data.

Stay informed, stay skeptical, and stay safe.

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