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Cyber security: What is phishing and spoofing?

Akita is a leading provider of IT security Kent and London organisations rely on. Here we explain what is phishing and outline the threats posed by phishing and spoofing attacks.

Last year saw an unprecedented number of cyber-attacks against organisations, with over a 200% increase in attacks on 2016. While some attacks have targeted technical weaknesses within systems, increasingly anti-virus and malware software is preventing this type of attack from being effective. Where technical attacks have been successful, there is usually an element of human error involved in allowing networks to become infected. As such, attacks now target human error as a way of bypassing security processes in a technique commonly known as phishing.

What is phishing?

Put simply, phishing is an attempt to trick a person into releasing sensitive information. Usually passwords, bank information and PIN numbers are the target, but other details such as mobile phone numbers or information about a company’s management, are also valued.

Most people will be aware of phishing through clichéd approaches: emails about a foreign lottery win, a prince who will share his fortune with you or wealth locked up in another country that needs a bank account to be channelled through. While some people still fall for these scams, many are now aware of them. As a result attacks have now evolved in complexity and personalisation.

Growing sophistication – Spoofing

Where general phishing attacks target hundreds of thousands of people with general information, cyber criminals are increasingly reducing the number of targets, but improving the information about them. Just as you’re more likely to respond to an email where the person uses your first name, cyber criminals know you are more likely to click malicious links or handover data if you think you know with whom you are dealing or communicating with. Here are some of the ways attacks work:

Spear phishing – Attacks targeting specific individuals rather than 1000s. For a small amount of research (looking at social media or publicly held records) cyber criminals can construct emails that resonate with staff or create a false sense of familiarity. These are more likely to be opened and acted upon by unsuspecting staff.

Whaling – Targeting of senior company figures or CEO. Attacks will be very well researched, often with several touch points with a company or even the individual to warm them up to ensure that once a phishing email is sent it yields maximum effectiveness. The end goals range from attempts to reveal banking information or, more commonly, passwords that give cyber criminals access to information held on networks and systems.

Clone phishing – Increasing in commonality, these ‘spoof’ emails appear to come from an individual or organisation that prompt the user to take an action. They will take the form of branded, near perfect copies of an actual email from the company, often linking through to a dummy webpage also made to look like the real thing that prompts you to enter your login details. Commonly cloned companies include Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and major high street banks such as the below example we’ve recently seen for TSB:

Could you tell this was a phishing page?

Clone attacks can also pose as individuals. Once a cyber-criminal has obtained a copy of your email style or footer, it’s a 5 minute job to create a clone email account with a very familiar name and look to a senior member of staff. A member of finance contacted at the end of a day by someone posing as the CEO may well be duped into transferring money to an unknown account or giving out sensitive banking details.

Business-email compromise (BEC) – Less common but becoming more of a risk with the number of devices carried by people at large these days. BEC is when an email account is actually compromised, usually the result of a lost or stolen phone or laptop (without the proper security precautions in place). Without reasonable security, criminals can get into systems or send emails that prompt staff to give out sensitive information.

Defence against phishing and spoofing

It’s estimated that without training, between 40-60% of staff will click on unsafe links regardless of how aware they claim to be about cyber threats. Any one of these links could introduce malware to your company system or give away vital company information. Here are the steps we recommend you can take to prevent it:

  • Ensure staff are trained on email and Internet security. Include IT safe practice as part of employment contracts to give it added importance.
  • Have an up to date firewall appliance to keep malicious attachments out of your network.
  • Ensure your email system has a spam checker and link checker – this should help to tackle obviously fraudulent links.
  • Hover over links before clicking it – you should be able to see the URL it’s linking to. If it doesn’t look right, don’t click it.
  • Add two factor authentication to laptops and devices, so the user must have a password and their phone to access.
  • Encrypt your laptops so that even if they’re lost no-one will be able to get information from them.
  • Use apps to partition phones so that should they get lost or stolen, business information can be deleted remotely before they’re compromised
  • Ensure staff feel comfortable to report mistakes if they make them – it’s better to be aware of potential breaches sooner rather than later.
  • If in doubt, ask! Whether it’s a case of calling the person who has supposedly sent the email to see if they really want you to transfer cash, or consulting IT experts such as ourselves.

Akita is a leading provider of London and Kent IT services and security solutions. View more information about our IT security services or get in touch: