Phishing attacks remain a persistent threat in our digital world, putting individuals and organizations at risk of losing sensitive information and suffering financial losses. The ability to spot the hooks and identify “what is a common indicator of a phishing attempt” can be the difference between falling victim to these scams and maintaining a robust security posture. In this blog post, we’ll discuss what constitutes a phishing attack, the top indicators to watch out for, and how to protect yourself from becoming a victim.
- Unfamiliar tone or salutation, suspicious attachments/links, and emotional language can all indicate a phishing attack.
- Adopt security awareness training, implement email authentication protocols and regularly update your security software to protect against phishing attempts.
- Real-life examples such as BEC & ransomware attacks demonstrate the damaging potential of phishing scams.
What is a common indicator of a Phishing Attack?
Phishing attacks aim to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in a phishing email or other electronic communication. Five distinct phishing attempts are employed by hackers, depending on the desired target and the type of data they seek to extract. To identify and avoid phishing attacks attempts is a critical step in safeguarding sensitive data.
An unfamiliar tone or salutation in an email message can signify a phishing attack, which aims to steal sensitive data from unsuspecting victims. Short and subtle phishing emails with attached files or suspicious links often indicate a phishing attack. Emotional language is also commonly used in phishing messages to manipulate targets into acting without carefully considering their decisions.
Top 8 Indicators of Phishing Attempts
To help users identify and avoid falling for phishing scams, we’ve compiled a list of the top 8 common indicators of phishing attempts. These indicators include:
- An unfamiliar tone or greeting
- Typos/spelling errors and grammar
- Inconsistencies in email addresses, domains, or links
- A sense of urgency or threatening language
- Suspicious attachments
- Fake security warnings
- Scenarios that seem too good to be true
- Festive season or themed offers
An Unfamiliar Tone or Greeting
Phishing emails often utilize generic or peculiar salutations unsuitable for the email’s context or flow. Examples of unusual or generic greetings used in phishing emails include:
- ‘Dear customer’
- ‘Dear account holder’
- ‘Dear user’
- ‘Dear sir/madam’
- ‘Dear valued member’
If an email from an apparently trusted source does not address you directly by name, that could indicate a potential security risk.
Generic signatures usually lack contact information, which strongly indicates phishing emails. It’s important to look out for these signs when reading emails. Receiving an email with an unfamiliar tone, subject line or greeting should trigger suspicion and lead you to verify the sender’s identity before reacting.
Typos/spelling errors and grammar
Typos, spelling errors, and poor grammar are often observed in phishing emails, likely due to the attackers having limited language skills or creating the messages in haste. These mistakes can make the phishing attempt look more genuine and raise the likelihood of the target being taken in by the scam.
Examples of poor grammar frequently observed in phishing attempts include:
- Spelling errors
- Incorrect verb tenses
- Improper capitalization
- Missing or misplaced punctuation
- Inconsistent sentence structure
Keeping an eye out for grammatical errors or spelling errors in emails can help users spot potential phishing attempts and avoid becoming victims.
Email addresses, domains or link inconsistencies
Inconsistencies in email addresses, domains, or links can indicate a potential phishing attack, as malicious actors may utilize similar-looking but counterfeit or fake site addresses to deceive their targets. Common examples of email address inconsistencies in phishing attacks include inconsistencies in the domain name, misspelt or altered email addresses, and the use of public email domains instead of a legitimate organization’s domain.
Domains are manipulated in phishing scams through domain spoofing and domain name manipulation. Link inconsistencies in phishing attempts can include links to malicious sites or web pages created to acquire sensitive information and other unusual characteristics. Before responding, confirming the authenticity of email addresses, domains, and links is vital.
Sense of urgency or threatening language
Phishing attackers employ tactics such as creating a sense of urgency or fear to manipulate victims into making hasty decisions without considering the consequences. This increases the likelihood of victims succumbing to the phishing scam, disclosing confidential information, or clicking on malicious links.
Potential phishing emails may contain threatening language or a sense of urgency by utilizing scare tactics to prompt immediate action. Upon encountering an email with urgent or threatening language, maintaining caution and verifying the email’s authenticity before responding is advised.
Unusual attachments are a frequent sign of a phishing attempt. Unknown file extensions or files of larger sizes in formats such as exe or zip can indicate a phishing attempt, as they may contain malicious content or other hazardous material.
Commonly utilized file formats in phishing attacks include:
- ZIP and RAR files
- EXE files
- SCR files
- PDF files
- VBS files
- RTF files
- DOC files
- XLS files
Exercising caution when opening email attachments, particularly those from unknown sources or in unusual formats, is advised.
Fake security warnings or login credentials asks
Fake security warnings are commonly used in phishing scams to deceive individuals into divulging their personal and financial information. Scammers may send emails or text messages that appear to be from genuine sources, such as banks or online services, and assert that there is a security issue or threat to the user’s account.
A genuine security warning typically originates from a reliable source, such as your operating system or antivirus software. However, a fake security warning may have typos or grammatical mistakes, use fear tactics to prompt immediate action, or request personal information or payment. Confirming the source and being cautious of any suspicious or unexpected warnings is crucial.
Too good-to-be-true scenarios
Offers that seem too good to be accurate are often a sign of phishing attempts, as attackers use enticing deals to lure victims into their traps. These offers often include heavily discounted items or promises of easy money, prompting the recipient to take immediate action without verifying the offer’s authenticity.
Avoiding such offers requires caution and verifying any offer’s authenticity before taking action. Employing email authentication protocols and ensuring that your security software is up-to-date can also help protect you from falling victim to these scams.
Festive season or themed offers
Phishers can use the festive season or themed offers to take advantage of timely events and create a sense of urgency or relevance. Examples of phishing attacks that use festive season or themed offers include:
- Christmas themed emails
- Fake payroll emails
- Fake delivery/post emails
- Typosquatting scams
- ‘You Won’ scams
Staying alert to email spam with subjects like holiday e-cards, travel notifications, and seemingly unrealistic holiday deals is necessary. By staying alert during these times, you can avoid becoming victims of the festive season or themed email phishing scams.
How to Protect Yourself from Phishing Scams
Protecting yourself from phishing scams involves continuous security awareness training, implementing email authentication protocols, and regularly updating your security software. These steps can bolster your defences against phishing attacks and reduce the risk of becoming a clone phishing scam victim.
Continuous Security Awareness Training
Continuous security awareness training can reinforce a company’s cybersecurity strategy and assist employees in identifying phishing indicators and responding correctly to potential risks. The essential elements of a continuous security awareness training program include:
- Executive endorsement and backing
- Risk-based objectives
- Employee involvement
- Assortment of training formats
- Assessment of efficacy
Security awareness training should be conducted every month to mitigate phishing attempts effectively. By training employees to recognize the signs of phishing and respond appropriately, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to these malicious attacks.
Email Authentication Protocols
Implementing email authentication protocols like Sender Policy Framework (SPF), DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), and Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC) can help prevent phishing attempts by verifying the authenticity of email senders. These protocols provide a comprehensive email security solution, allowing domain owners to specify how their emails should be authenticated and handled.
Implementing these email authentication protocols can shield you and your organization from phishing attacks, protect your login credentials, and confirm that emails are sent from legitimate originating email addresses.
Regularly Update Security Software
Regularly updating security software is essential for protecting against the latest phishing tactics and malware. Maintaining up-to-date security software offers several advantages, such as:
- Preventing potential security issues
- Enhancing compatibility and program features
- Resolving bugs and vulnerabilities
- Optimizing computer operations
- Safeguarding against cyber threats
It is recommended to update security software daily for optimal protection. Not updating security software regularly can expose your computer to new threats and attacks, so keeping your software current and maintaining a robust defence against emerging threats is essential.
Real-Life Examples of Phishing Attacks
To illustrate the dangers of phishing attacks more vividly, consider real-life examples like a data breach, business email compromise (BEC) and ransomware attacks. These examples demonstrate the significant impact phishing attacks can have on individuals and organizations.
Business Email Compromise (BEC)
Business email compromise (BEC) is a phishing attack that targets employees with access to company finances or sensitive information, often using spoofed email addresses and urgent requests. BEC attacks involve impersonating someone the recipient should trust, such as a colleague, boss, or vendor, and requesting the recipient to make a wire transfer or provide confidential information.
Some notable examples of business email compromise attacks include the $121 million BEC scam involving Facebook and Google, the $46.7 million vendor fraud at Ubiquiti, and the $37 million BEC attack on Toyota in 2019. These incidents underscore the importance of identifying phishing attempts and the potential financial and reputational harm they can inflict on legitimate organization.
Ransomware attacks are a form of phishing that involves encrypting a victim’s data and demanding payment for its release, often using malicious attachments or links in phishing emails. Various types of ransomware, such as cryptoware, locker ransomware, and scareware, are typically employed in phishing attacks.
One high-profile example of a ransomware attack is the Colonial Pipeline incident, initiated through a cyberattack involving DarkSide ransomware. This attack emphasizes the importance of identifying phishing attempts and the possible outcomes of becoming a victim of these scams.
In conclusion, phishing attacks pose a significant risk to individuals and organizations, but by recognizing common indicators of a phishing call and taking appropriate precautions, you can protect yourself and your sensitive information. By staying vigilant, continuously updating your security software, and implementing email authentication protocols, you can minimize the threat of phishing attacks and maintain a secure online presence.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a common indicator of a phishing attempt at cyber awareness?
Generic signatures and a lack of contact information are indicators of potential phishing emails, so it is essential to review emails carefully before responding. Legitimate organizations typically provide contact information, so fraudulent emails with this absence should be treated with caution.
Which is a common phishing attempt?
Deceptive phishing is the most common type of phishing attempt. Fraudsters impersonate a legitimate company or sender to steal personal data or login credentials, often using threats and a sense of urgency to compel people to comply. Fake emails downloading attachments are also commonly used in these attempts.
What are the common features of a phishing attack?
Common features of a phishing attack include requests for login credentials, payment information or sensitive data; offers that are too good to be true; suspicious or unsolicited attachments; inconsistencies in email addresses, links and domain names; unfamiliar greetings or salutations; frequent urgent action demands; poor grammar and spelling errors; and threats or a sense of urgency.
What security measures can help protect against phishing attacks?
Continuous security awareness training, email authentication protocols, and regularly updating security software are effective measures to protect against phishing attacks.
What is the difference between spear phishing and whaling?
Spear phishing involves using targeted emails to gain access to personal information, whereas a whaling attack focuses on sending malicious emails to senior members of an organization.
Harman Singh is a security professional with over 15 years of consulting experience in both public and private sectors.
As the Managing Consultant at Cyphere, he provides cyber security services to retailers, fintech companies, SaaS providers, housing and social care, construction and more. Harman specialises in technical risk assessments, penetration testing and security strategy.
He regularly speaks at industry events, has been a trainer at prestigious conferences such as Black Hat and shares his expertise on topics such as ‘less is more’ when it comes to cybersecurity. He is a strong advocate for ensuring cyber security as an enabler for business growth.
In addition to his consultancy work, Harman is an active blogger and author who has written articles for Infosecurity Magazine, VentureBeat and other websites.