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Common Types of Phishing Attacks

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Every day, over three billion phishing messages flood inboxes, representing a staggering 1% of total email traffic. Although this deceptive practice emerged in the mid-90s, it wasn't until nearly a decade later that it became widely recognized among the general public. 

This delay in awareness, however, did not diminish the early and significant threat posed by phishing. Understanding its most common types and the story behind them is crucial in safeguarding yourself against these ever-evolving scams.

Phishing - The Story Behind

Phishing, notorious for using deceptive emails and websites, is designed to trick individuals into voluntarily disclosing sensitive information. The term 'phishing' aptly mirrors these deceitful tactics. 

The first phishing victims, unfamiliar with such deceit, were easily duped into sharing their personal details. This vulnerability marked the beginning of phishing attacks as we know them today.

Phishing's origin story is closely linked with AOL (America Online) during the period of 1994-1995. During this time, AOL was a leading internet service provider with a rapidly growing user base. However, like many private companies at the time, AOL didn't prioritize online security, a major concern of government entities. This lack of attention to cybersecurity made AOL the target of the first recorded phishing attack.

The hacker 'Da Chronic' played a key role in this historic event. In 1994, he created a Windows application called 'AOHell.' This application was notorious for its 'CC/PW Fisher' feature, the first phishing toolkit to exploit AOL's direct messaging system.

The program was revolutionary in its automation, making it easy for hackers to obtain personal credentials. By pretending to be AOL customer service, hackers sent direct messages to users requesting their usernames and passwords under the guise of security verification. This marked the beginning of the era of cybercrime, with phishing at the forefront.

What is a Phishing Attack?

Phishing is an attempt to deceive victims in order to gain access to confidential and private information, as well as distribute infected files. A phishing attack is a malicious cyber attack in which attackers use deceptive tactics to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information, such as login credentials, financial data, or personal details. This technique targets human vulnerability rather than technical vulnerabilities, making it a prevalent and effective method cybercriminals use to gain unauthorized access to valuable information.

Common Types of Phishing Attacks

Smear Phishing 

Spear phishing is a sophisticated cyber attack where malicious emails are tailored to deceive specific individuals or organizations, aiming to gain unauthorized access to confidential data.

In a notable spear phishing attack, Fischer Advanced Composite Components AG (FACC), an Austrian aeronautics company, lost over 42 million euros in 2016. The attack involved cybercriminals impersonating the CEO’s email and instructing an employee to transfer funds to a fraudulent account for a fictitious 'acquisition project.' This deception led to a significant financial and reputational loss for FACC, resulting in the firing of several staff members, including the CEO, highlighting the devastating impact of targeted cyber attacks.

Clone Phishing - Malvertising

Clone phishing is a sophisticated cyberattack where attackers create a near-identical copy of a legitimate email to disseminate malware. This process involves intercepting an authentic message, altering its content, and resending it. The modified email typically contains a malicious attachment or a harmful link, which may replace an original, legitimate one.

Number of Phishing Sites Around the World

A prevalent form of clone phishing is the refund scam. In this scenario, the victim receives an email, seemingly from a well-known website, claiming eligibility for a refund. The email cunningly requests personal or banking information under the guise of processing this refund.

A notable instance of clone phishing is the Office 365 phishing attack. Victims receive an email that appears to be an official alert from Microsoft, stating that their Office 365 account has been suspended. It prompts the user to sign in to reactivate their account. While the email might look authentic, certain red flags – like unusual sender addresses or urgent language – can give away its deceptive nature

“Another related tactic is malvertising, where malicious advertisements redirect users to fake websites that mimic legitimate ones. The goal here is to deceive users into unintentionally revealing sensitive information.”

Whaling Phishing

Whaling is a sophisticated form of phishing that targets senior executives with emails masquerading as legitimate communication. This type of cyberattack involves social engineering to trick victims into actions like wire transfers. Whaling emails are more intricate than standard phishing emails and typically:

  • Includes personalized information about the target or organization.
  • Conveys urgency.
  • Uses business language and tone adeptly.
Common Strategies for Whaling Attacks

As whaling attacks aim at high-profile targets, their strategies have evolved, including:

Follow-up Phone Calls

These social engineering tactics bolster the credibility of the whaling email. A phone call following the email adds a layer of authenticity and reduces suspicion of a cyberattack.

Impersonating Trusted Partners

Leveraging information about suppliers or partners, attackers create credible emails to exploit supply chain vulnerabilities.

Utilizing Social Media

Platforms like LinkedIn offer a wealth of information for targeting executives. Attackers can gather data for social engineering or create fake profiles and job scams, leading to increased phishing attacks. For instance, phishing attacks impersonating LinkedIn have surged by 232% since February 1, 2022.

Emails Mimicking Colleagues

By compromising or spoofing an employee's email, attackers deceive other staff members, particularly effective when impersonating senior executives to request urgent financial transactions.

Each method demonstrates the increasing sophistication of whaling attacks, underlining the need for vigilance and robust security measures in corporate environments.

Barrel Phishing

It's common knowledge that most marketing emails are not limited to a single message containing a link. Salespeople often implement the strategy of sending at least three emails and following up regularly. Unfortunately, attackers also use similar tactics. Barrel phishing is a lesser-known but increasingly prevalent cyberattack strategy that differs from standard phishing in that it targets victims through a series of emails rather than a single message. This approach resembles marketing tactics, where multiple emails are sent to build trust and engagement.

In a barrel phishing attack, the first email to the potential victim is typically non-malicious. This initial message serves as bait and establishes a sense of legitimacy and trust with the recipient. It may include links to a website that, although fake, is crafted to look authentic and resembles a trusted source.

The subsequent emails or emails are where the malicious intent becomes evident. Following the establishment of perceived authenticity, these follow-up messages contain harmful content. They are often more direct and aggressive, urging the recipient to divulge sensitive company data, personal details, or financial information. 

The strategy of barrel phishing relies on the recipient's lowered defenses due to the trust built by the initial, seemingly harmless email. Understanding the modus operandi of barrel phishing is essential in recognizing and preventing such cyber threats.

It underscores the importance of being cautious with any follow-up emails, especially those prompting for sensitive information, even if they seem to come from a previously trusted source.


Smishing is a form of cyber-attack that is conducted through mobile text messaging. It is a specialized version of phishing where attackers disguise themselves as trusted entities to trick victims into revealing sensitive information. Smishing attacks can use malware or direct victims to fraudulent websites. It is important to note that this cyber threat is not just limited to traditional SMS platforms but also extends to various data-based mobile messaging applications.

Smishing Attacks Statistics

A staggering statistic reveals that about 76% of global businesses have been targeted by these attacks. This percentage highlights the urgent need for increased awareness and robust security measures across all mobile communication channels to combat this growing threat.

Voice Phishing

Vishing, also known as voice phishing, is a fraudulent tactic used by scammers to obtain personal information or money from individuals through phone calls. This is not a new issue as telephone scams have been around for a while. Typically, the scammer will pretend to represent a well-known company, trusted institution or government agency.

They may offer you a free vacation, ask you to buy an extended warranty, claim that your computer is infected and demand that you purchase anti-virus software or request you to donate to charity. It is essential to be mindful of such scams and not share any personal information or send money to anyone without verifying their authenticity.

Spear Phishing

Spear-phishing is a cyber attack that targets individuals or organizations through malicious emails. The attackers carefully research their targets to make the emails appear to be from trusted senders in the targets' lives. The goal of spear phishing is to steal sensitive information like login credentials or infect the targets' device with malware. These attacks prioritize quality over quantity.

Emails, texts, or phone calls are highly personalized for a specific organization or individual, making them more convincing and likely to deceive potential victims. In contrast, general phishing campaigns are sent to many people. 

CEOs receive an average of 57 targeted phishing attacks annually. It is important to be vigilant and take necessary precautions to protect against these attacks.

How to Protect Yourself from Phishing

Defending against phishing attacks involves a combination of vigilance and proactive measures. Here are key strategies to consider:

  • Verify Email Addresses: Exercise caution even with emails that seem to come from familiar senders. Always check the sender's email address thoroughly, especially its format and domain. Hover over the address to reveal the true sender. If you receive an email from an unfamiliar colleague, verify their identity through the company directory before responding.
  • Scrutinize Links: Before clicking on any links, hover over them to preview the URL. Mismatched URLs and destination addresses can be a significant red flag indicating a phishing attempt.
  • Implement Awareness Training: Regularly educate employees about the latest phishing scams and cybersecurity trends. Conducting security awareness training and phishing simulations helps assess and improve staff response to potential threats.
  • Update Security Software: Regularly update antivirus and anti-malware programs to safeguard your devices from malicious software that could be part of a phishing attack.
  • Use Alternate Contact Methods: If an email or message raises suspicions, verify its authenticity by contacting the sender through a different channel, such as a phone call or text message, to confirm they sent the email.
How to Prevent Phishing Attacks

By adopting these protective measures, individuals and businesses can significantly reduce their risk of falling victim to phishing attacks.

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