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Going Beyond the Hook: Understanding the Three Variants of Phishing and How to Identify Them

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Phishing is one of the most common and well known cyberattacks that exists today. Phishing is a cyberattack that targets users via email, phone, or text by impersonating a legitimate organization to attempt to trick users into clicking a link or providing personal or company information such as passwords or login information. These attacks will vary in their scope and level of sophistication, but when attacking a business, the most common way is through email.

The three most common variants of phishing:

  1. Email Phishing

Email Phishing is when an attacker sends a fraudulent email that makes itself appear to come from a legitimate source like a bank, a social media company, or an online retailer. The email may contain a link to a fake website designed to look legitimate that asks the user to log in to steal their credentials. The link could also have a malicious file attached to it or the email could have a malicious file as an attachment. A lot of the time these emails will contain some sort of urgency or be something that sounds too good to be true.

  1. Spear Phishing

Spear phishing is similar to standard email phishing; however, the attack is more targeted. The attacker may target a small or specific group all the way down to one individual user. This attack uses specific information about the group or individual and can contain personal information or information gathered from social media in order to further make the email seem more legitimate. This is done to attempt to gin the trust of the user and make them more likely to click a link or open a file.

  1. Whale Phishing

Whale phishing is a type of spear phishing that will specifically target high profile targets, such as a CEO or a high-ranking executive. The attacker will pose as this high-level executive and target those in the company and make requests while including references or details about events or company information in order to seem legitimate. Since this high-ranking executive can authorize high level decisions and have access to the highest level of company information, these types of attacks can be devastating to a company if they are successful.

How to Identify Phishing Emails: Tips for Staying Safe Online

Now that you have a better idea of what phishing is, let’s talk about what you can look for in an email to identify if something could possibly be phishing. The five most common things to look for in a phishing email are that the email is coming from an unusual sender, the email contains an attachment, the email invokes a sense of urgency, the email contains a link, and that the email seems too good to be true.

  • Unusual Sender – Inspecting who an email is coming from can help to identify a phishing attempt. When you receive an email that is unexpected or appears suspicious, it is important to carefully examine the sender. It is not enough to simply look at the sender's name; you must also inspect the actual email address to determine its authenticity. It may say that it is coming from a reputable source, but the actual email sender could be completely different.
  • Attachments – A big red flag of a suspicious email is when it contains an attachment. In the event that you receive an attachment from someone unexpectedly or if the attachment appears to be irrelevant or suspicious, it is best not to open it. This is a good indicator to check the actual sender of the email for more verification.
  • Sense of Urgency – A key technique utilized in a phishing attack is to manipulate the user into feeling a sense of urgency. This is considered to be a highly effective strategy for the success of the attack. If the user feels like a situation needs immediate attention, they may skip over details that would otherwise identify the email as fraudulent. Most companies will give an ample amount of time for responding to a request. Take your time and think about the emails before jumping into action.
  • Links – Any email containing a link to a website or file location should be inspected more thoroughly before continuing. This is also a clear sign that the email should be subjected to further inspection before taking any action.
  • Too good to be true – In case something appears excessively beneficial, it is likely to be false or misleading. In this case, if you unexpectedly win a prize or a lump sum of money that you never signed up for, you almost certainly didn’t and shouldn’t proceed to click any links or attachments.

This wraps up the basics of phishing emails. Having a base understanding of what a phishing attack is will help to prevent a successful attack. Using the knowledge we have discussed will certainly help, but when in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution. There are more tools in the cybersecurity world that can help to prevent phishing like advanced email filters and email security programs, along with endpoint detection and response in the event that an attack is successful. User awareness is a simple but effective way to prevent a lot of phishing attacks as well.

Need help protecting your business from phishing attacks? 


About the AuthorDerek Bock

Derek has a passion for working with people and helping them solve problems. With 15+ years of customer service experience and troubleshooting iOS, Mac, and Windows PC. He maintains procedures and provides technical support to entire organizations.