What is Phishing and How do I Protect my Devices Against it?

Aviva Zacks
Posted: October 31, 2018

Phishing attacks are a cybercrime where users are tricked into sharing their personal data, such as credit card details and passwords, often without even knowing they’ve done so. It’s essentially an infection that attacks your computer by tricking you into downloading it. Hackers then use social engineering tactics to get their victims to click, share information, or download files.

For phishing hackers, your ignorance is their bliss. Fortunately, because phishing scams require you to actually fall for them, if you’re aware of the problem then it’s relatively easy to avoid them. So how do you go about identifying and avoiding phishing attacks? We’ll explain below…

How Phishing Works

When we label types of malware, like viruses, spyware, or adware, we’re referring to the form the infection takes. Phishing is an exception to this rule as it describes how the problem happened, rather than how it behaves. Phishing attacks are most commonly email scams that prompt the recipient to take action, usually to achieve one of two goals:

  • Tricking you into sharing personal information
  • Fooling you into downloading harmful malware

Once you’ve given them access, hackers can access your bank account, steal your identity, or make fraudulent purchases in your name.

Over the last few years, email scams have increased by over 400%. The growth and success of email phishing have also led to offshoots of the method. We’ll discuss more of these below:

SMiShing

As the name suggests, SMiShing is a similar scam that tricks users via text message. Many people are aware of email phishing; however, less are suspicious of SMS messages, which increases the likelihood of falling for the scam.

Spear Phishing

Spear phishing uses the same methods as the above scams, but it targets a specific individual. You may see a string of emails designed to lure you into taking action. Spear phishing attacks could also target you on multiple messaging platforms.

Whaling

Similar to spear phishing, whaling also targets an individual person or organization. However, it’s usually someone with a lot to lose, such as CEOs, celebrities, political figures, or wealthy families.

Endless phishing scams exist, but they use similar bait to fool their victims. So how can you go about identifying these scams in order to avoid them? Here’s how…

Spotting a Phishing Scam

Over the years, phishing has developed from obviously fake emails to complex strategies designed to fool recipients. Fortunately, knowledge is power and red flags can help you spot a phishing attempt. Here are some obvious signs to look out for:

It Mimics Trusted Brands

The standard cybersecurity practice is to never open emails from unknown senders. To bypass this, hackers mimic trusted brands. You may receive a message from Apple, Amazon, or your bank which appears to be genuine, but actually contains phishing malware.

There are Mistakes and Typos

Hackers don’t invest in proofreaders… on purpose. They only want to con the most gullible victims, so phishing scams often include glaring mistakes, such as typos or errors. Clumsy formatting, bad graphic placements, and random font changes are telltale signs.

The Use of Scare Tactics

Urgency and scare tactics are two known marketing tactics that prompt customers to act fast. Criminals also employ these methods of phishing scams to make victims click without thinking. They may claim your bank account is about to be shut down, you’ll face a fine if you don’t cooperate, or that there’s been a security breach.

It’s Sent by an Unofficial Email Address

Even if scammers can perfectly replicate the branding and email style of a trusted company, they can never use the company’s official address. Most phishing malware is sent from completely random emails, but sometimes they can secure an address that is similar. It’s worth checking a company’s website for official contact details before responding.

It’s “Too Good to Be True”

Alongside the use of scare tactics, phishing scams also play on our materialistic nature. Claims that you’ve won an iPad, exotic holiday, or a million dollars are classic scams. Remember, if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

How to Protect Yourself from Phishing Scams

The best way to stay safe from phishing scams is to vet all of your messages properly. If you don’t fall for the scam, you won’t have to worry about the malware. However, other tactics do exist to further reduce your chances of falling victim. These include:

  • Reputable email services come with spam filters that attempt to weed out phishing emails. They’re not 100% effective but may reduce the threat.
  • Most high-quality antivirus suites come with anti-phishing protection. They’ll highlight suspicious messages and warn you when you’re visiting what could be a fraudulent site.
  • Phishing scams can also occur when you visit websites. Stick to domains with https:// and SSL layers to ensure you’re using trusted sites only.

You’ve Been Caught by a Phishing Scam. Now What?

No matter how prepared you try to be, mistakes do happen. If you accidentally share personal information or download harmful software, follow these steps to reduce the damage:

Run a Full System Scan

The first step is to perform a complete system scan. If you have contracted malware, it could be spying on your activity or intercepting your data. Use your antivirus to quarantine and delete the infection before you do anything else.

Report the Problem

Next, report the attack to all the relevant parties. This includes your email provider, bank, and the anti-fraud commission for your country (the Federal Trade Commission in the US, for example.) Alerting these organizations allows them to reduce the chance of further attacks, but also gives you credibility if you end up with fraudulent charges to your bank account.

Change your Passwords

Change all of your passwords immediately. Sophisticated malware can intercept these details in seconds, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. Opt for unique, complex password combinations that use different symbols and letters in both upper and lower case.

Don’t Let Phishing Malware Control your Life

As we’ve mentioned above, knowledge is power. Get to know the typical features of phishing messages you can expect, and you’ll be able to identify fraudulent messages and avoid falling victim to a scam. Combine this with a high-quality security suite to notify you of any malware that gets in, and you can be confident that your personal data is safe. For more information, see our comprehensive phishing guide to staying protected from all kinds of phishing threats.

About the Author

Aviva Zacks
Aviva Zacks

Aviva Zacks is a content manager, writer, editor, and really good baker. When she's not working, she enjoys reading on her porch swing with a cup of decaf.