From Click to Consequence: The Journey of a Phishing Attack

Phishing attacks are among the most common cybersecurity threats. Fraudsters routinely use methods including email and text message to dupe victims into handing over sensitive information, including payment details, or transferring money to them directly.

Needless to say, successful phishing attempts can have devastating consequences for the people on the receiving end. Businesses and individuals can lose thousands of pounds if they get caught out by a phishing attack – so it’s vital that you know what to look out for and you remain on your guard.

In particular, you need to know what phishing attacks might look like and what they’re intended to achieve. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer, step-by-step look at how a typical phishing attack might proceed, and the forms it could take.

Scoping the potential target

When preparing to launch a phishing attack, criminals conduct research into potential targets. This will involve gathering information about them, along with the organisation they work for, so as to devise an attempt which is convincing enough to dupe them into parting with their money or data.

Fraudsters may also use social media profiling and data breaches when choosing a target, which again helps them to create a suitably compelling message that successfully cons the target into thinking it’s come from a legitimate individual or organisation.

Deciding on a method

Phishing attacks typically take the form of emails or SMS messages. They may direct users to click on a malicious link where they are then instructed to provide sensitive information or malware surreptitiously installed to their device, or to download a malicious attachment.

Criminals may use methods including botnets to send out mass emails to potential victims, purchasing email lists from third-party sources or exploiting security vulnerabilities in email systems.

Crafting a compelling message

To successfully dupe a target into handing over their sensitive information or their money, fraudsters will look to craft a message that triggers the right response. This may be urgency, fear or simple curiosity, pressuring the target to take a certain action before they’ve had time to think it through.

So, for example, criminals undertaking a phishing attack may tell their victim that their bank account has been compromised and that they urgently need to provide personal information, or alternatively telling them that they’ve won a prize of some sort.

Criminals will also try to psychologically manipulate their targets, playing on sentiments such as trust, fear or the prospect of financial reward. This can make the recipients of fraudulent messages more likely to respond as the fraudsters want them to.

Including fake links or attachments

Phishing emails or text messages commonly include malicious attachments (malware) or links to bogus websites purporting to be from a legitimate organisation such as a bank. At a casual glance, these websites may appear genuine, but in fact direct users to enter personal data which can then be used by the fraudsters for their own criminal purposes.

Impersonating legitimate sources

Phishing attacks are growing increasingly sophisticated. Fraudsters very often impersonate legitimate sources in scam emails – they may pose as your boss, your bank, or an online retailer, for example – in order to manipulate people into going along with what the fraudsters want them to do.

As we’ve already noted, this can often be very convincing at first glance. This is why you should always double check the email address the message has been sent from, and verify any links that have been included in the email. Don’t download any attachments unless you can be sure that the sender is legitimate.

Monitoring and adjusting

After a phishing attack, fraudsters will monitor just how affective it has been. This will involve, for example, looking at click-through rates and response rates to determine whether both the method and the messaging of the attack have delivered the desired results.

This will then allow them to adjust their messaging or adapt their method for future phishing attempts, potentially increasing their chances of success.

It is essential that you remain vigilant against phishing attacks. They are, as we’ve discussed, both very common and increasingly sophisticated. Unsolicited emails or messages from unknown or unverified recipients should therefore be treated with caution, particularly where they request sensitive information or ask the recipient to take immediate action.

Before doing anything, you must verify the authenticity of the message. Furthermore, robust cybersecurity measures – including having the most up-to-date security software – can help keep your business protected, along with educating your employees about phishing techniques.

At Solsoft, we provide IT services including strategy and virtual CIO, reactive support and ongoing monitoring and maintenance. Get in touch with us today and find out more about what we can do to protect your business against cybersecurity threats.