What is Phishing?



what is phishing

Let’s start with a different question… What is cybersecurity? It’s one that a lot of small businesses need to ask today. And the answers need to include information on phishing. What it is, what to do about it, and how it can affect your enterprise if you don’t do anything.

What is phishing? Phishing attacks are designed to trick you into giving up sensitive information. Cybercriminals use phishing emails to pose as credible institutions.

They want personal details and to steal credit card information, or to install malware on a computer. A targeted attack can include malicious web links to fake websites.




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A phishing attack is one of the cybersecurity terms you should know.

What is a Phishing Attack?

Phishing is an online scam technique that cybercriminals use to deceive people into giving away their private information, such as passwords or credit card numbers. This cyberattack method tricks internet users by pretending to be someone they trust.

A common way this is done is through deceptive emails that seem legit at first glance. These emails often contain links or attachments that, when clicked on, can install harmful software on the user’s computer.

This software can then steal information or even take control of the computer. When someone is tricked in this way, they have fallen for a phishing scam.



what is phishingA Brief History of Phishing Attacks

To really understand phishing, we need to look back at its origins. This malicious tactic began taking shape in the mid-1990s when online tricksters used fake identities to fool people.

One notable event in the history of phishing was the “I Love You” email scam in 2000. This email seemed innocent but contained a harmful link that caused significant online chaos.

Nowadays, the threat from phishing has grown immensely. Predictions say that as many as 6 billion phishing attempts could happen this year. With numbers like these, it’s crucial to always be cautious when receiving unexpected emails or messages.

Types of Phishing

While deceptive emails are the most common type of phishing attack, especially for businesses, there are other methods scammers use to try and steal information. For instance, they might set up fake websites that look like ones you trust, hoping you’ll enter your login details.



what is phishing

Let’s take a look at the different kinds of phishing attacks that people and businesses need to be wary of:

1. Spear Phishing

Spear phishing is a targeted form of attack. Instead of sending out thousands of generic scam emails hoping someone will bite, spear phishers take time to research their victims.

They gather data about a specific person, organization, or business, and then craft a personalized email that appears to come from a trusted source. For instance, they might impersonate a coworker or a known business partner.



The goal is to get the target to trust the email enough to click a link or share sensitive information. Everyone, especially those in prominent roles in an organization, needs to be vigilant against these well-crafted threats.

2. Email Phishing

The most widespread form of phishing is through emails. Scammers send out large volumes of emails to potential victims, hoping that even a small percentage will fall for the scam.

These emails often use urgent language, like warning about a security breach, to make the recipient act quickly without thinking. They might ask for personal information directly or include a link to a fake website that looks like a legitimate service you use.

To protect against email phishing, always check the sender’s address carefully, be skeptical of unexpected emails with urgent requests, and never click on suspicious links.



Simulated phishing emails are the ones that criminals send to test their efforts. This Microsoft office document talks about what to look for. Here’s some good info on spam filters too.

what is phishing

3. Vishing

Not all phishing attacks are digital in the traditional sense. Vishing, or voice phishing, involves scammers trying to deceive people over the phone. They might pretend to be from your bank, the IRS, or another official-sounding organization.

They’ll often create a fake crisis, like claiming there’s a problem with your account, to get you to share personal or financial information over the phone.



It’s always a good idea, if you receive such a call, to hang up and then call the organization directly using a phone number you know is legitimate. This way, you can confirm if the call was genuine or an attempt at vishing.

The Federal Trade Commission wants you to report vishing to them.

4. Whaling

Whaling is a specialized form of spear phishing. Instead of going after just anyone, these attackers aim for the “big fish” in an organization—think CEOs, CFOs, and other top executives.

The attackers usually spend a lot of time crafting a believable message, perhaps impersonating a trusted business partner or a fellow executive. They might ask the executive to authorize a financial transaction or reveal sensitive company data.



Due to the high-level targets and potentially massive implications of these scams, it’s crucial for company leadership to be trained and cautious about unsolicited and unexpected communication.

what is phishing

5. Angler Phishing

The digital realm is vast, and scammers have found ways to exploit almost every corner of it. Angler phishing focuses on social media platforms. Here, attackers create fake customer service accounts for well-known brands.

When a user complains or asks a question on the brand’s official page, the fake account responds with a request for personal or login details.



To avoid this trap, always double-check the authenticity of accounts before sharing information, especially if they approached you first.

6. Smishing

With almost everyone owning a mobile phone, text messages become another avenue for phishing. Smishing, or SMS phishing, involves receiving a text message that seems to be from a trusted organization, like your bank.

The message might warn you about a potential issue with your account and prompt you to click a link or call a number. Always be wary of unsolicited texts, especially if they ask for personal information or prompt immediate action.

what is phishing



7. Clone Phishing

In clone phishing, attackers take a legitimate email you’ve received, replicate it, and then slightly alter it for malicious intent. They might change a link or attachment in the email, making it harmful.

Then, they’ll resend this “cloned” email, making it appear as if it’s coming from the original sender. To guard against this, it’s helpful to pay attention to small details in emails and always double-check with the sender if something feels off.

8. Water Hole Phishing

This strategy is a bit more indirect. Attackers identify websites that employees of a particular organization frequently visit. They then try to compromise those sites. When an employee visits the “watering hole,” they might unknowingly download malicious software.

It’s like predators waiting at a watering hole for their prey. To defend against such threats, businesses should ensure employees are educated about safe browsing practices and maintain strong cybersecurity defenses.



Comparing Phishing Tactics

To help differentiate and quickly recognize the various types of phishing attacks, refer to the table below:

TypeCharacteristicsDelivery Method
Spear PhishingTargeted at specific individuals/groups; from credible sourceEmails
Email PhishingGeneric messages, unofficial email addressesEmails
VishingVoice-based deception, typically about account problemsPhone calls
WhalingTargets senior officials, involves financial transactionsEmails
Angler PhishingFocus on social media, uses fake posts and tweetsSocial media platforms
SmishingText-based, might have unusual area codesSMS/text messages
Clone PhishingAppears to be from common service, requests known informationEmails
Water Hole PhishingTargets websites employees frequently visitCompromised websites or fake web addresses

what is phishing

How to Recognize Phishing Scams

A successful phishing attack happens when you don’t know what to look for. Following are a few ways that you can detect phishing.

  • Bad Grammar and Spelling – Spear phishing campaigns aren’t effective when you spot these errors. Bad spelling might be legit, or it can be a way to get around filters that prevent phishing attacks. Grammatical errors top the red flag list in emails and on phishing websites.
  • Generic Greetings – Don’t supply account numbers online. Especially when your bank doesn’t know your name. Generic greetings from organizations you work with should tip you off. A “Dear Sir” email might be an attempt to get malware installed.
  • Email Domains That Don’t Match  – Reputable companies use their own email domains. Phishing emails have small errors, like microsOft or they get sent from a generic domain like Gmail. Phishing domains are a common method they use to get you to download malware.

Generally, you can look for malicious URLs with the misspelling in the email or domain name.

What Are Examples of Phishing?

Here are a few examples of this kind of malicious software that can result in financial and even identity theft. There are other phishing examples too.

  • Link Manipulation – This type has phishing links that lead to malicious websites. The fake web pages ask for account credentials.
  • Evil Twin Wi-Fi – Access points get spoofed. People get internet access to the wrong Hotspot. Watch out for access points in shopping malls, coffee shops, etc.
  • Malvertising – Advertising and pop-ups with links that install malicious code. Malicious links are common as are malicious attachments.

How Does a Phishing Scam Work?

Phishing uses email and other forms of communication. The criminal usually poses as a legitimate company like a bank or supplier. The sender is trying to get access to sensitive information such as Like bank account numbers or admin passwords.

Victims could be tricked into clicking a link to a phishing website, as the scams vary. Some hackers use false social media profiles.

Basic attacks attempt to trick people into entering confidential information or personal details. Prizes won in false competitions and winning vouchers are common techniques.

Finally, here’s a list of the best phishing training options for you and your employees.

Image: Envato Elements


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Rob Starr Rob Starr is a staff writer for Small Business Trends. Rob is a freelance journalist and content strategist/manager with three decades of experience in both print and online writing. He currently works in New York City as a copywriter and all across North America for a variety of editing and writing enterprises.

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