Phishing techniques, consequences and protection tips
by Mirko Zorz - Editor in Chief - Monday, 24 December 2012.
In this interview, Rohyt Belani, CEO at PhishMe, illustrates the magnitude of the phishing threat. He discusses techniques, consequences and protection tips.

What happens once your identity gets stolen? How exactly does a phisher benefit from gaining access to your sensitive information? What can he do?

Of course it depends on the information stolen, and the goal of the hacker, as to what can be done with sensitive information. The first thing to clarify is that there are two types of phishing attacks – consumer oriented phishing attacks and enterprise oriented phishing attacks.

In the case of an individual attack the end goal is to steal the person’s identity for financial gain – so to obtain credit cards and launder money through those channels; gain access to online identities – for example bank, PayPal and eBay accounts; make purchases that are easily converted into money such as train tickets and mobile phone top ups; etc. This type of cyber-crime is usually quickly detected, so the payload is limited, but it’s exceptionally difficult to identify the criminal behind the fraud leaving them free to practice their craft with little fear of capture.

More recently criminals have realised there’s more to gain from a corporate attack but with the same anonymity. If you think of a bank – every time a consumer falls victim to a phishing scam the losses are ring fenced to that one account. However, if just one employees’ workstation is compromised and the attackers gain a foothold on the inside of the corporate network then that’s a whole new ball game as theoretically that could expose every customer account and more.

A phisher needs just one person to click on a malicious link, or open an attachment laden with malware, to gain access to the organisation's network. From this vantage point there’s a multitude of possibilities – stealing R&D information, customer details, even hold the organisation to ransom.

One of the most important things is to be aware that emails are an attack vector and to treat all messages with caution – whether they’re from a stranger, a friend or a colleague.

What are some of the most clever phishing schemes you've encountered?

Phishing attacks can be categorised into three main forms – those with an authoritative tone, those that prey on greed, and those with an opportunistic message.

I find that emails that adopt an authoritative approach are 25% more likely to draw the (un)desired response from the victim. Typically they will demand the user complete an action, within a certain timeframe instilling a sense of urgency, and outlines the consequences for non-participation. For example, a message claiming to be from the accounts or HR team stating that the payroll system is being migrated to another company and that the employee must follow a link and validate their bank account details by a certain date or their salary can’t be paid into their account on the next pay day.

Greed is another motivator that attackers will use to draw people in. One such example is a message from the company stating that, due to a particularly successful year, a raffle will be held where one employee will win a prize – it could be a gift card, a holiday, or even a car. Everyone is encouraged to click a link to enroll in the scheme.

Opportunistic messages can also be successful. For example a free lottery to win tickets to the Olympics, every tax season we see a spike in emails claiming to be from HMRC, and even the U.S. presidential elections were used to try to trick people.

While these are the types of themes phishers will use, timing is another tactic they employ. Many successful phishing attacks are launched on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons as this is the time people tend to spend clearing their inboxes and can be distracted more easily.

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