Phishing attacks attempt to steal sensitive information through emails, websites, text messages, or other forms of electronic communication. They try to look like official communication from legitimate companies or individuals.
Cybercriminals often attempt to steal usernames, passwords, credit card details, bank account information, or other credentials. They use stolen information for malicious purposes, such as hacking, identity theft, or stealing money directly from bank accounts and credit cards. The information can also be sold in cybercriminal underground markets.
What to do if you've been a victim of a phishing scam
If you feel you've been a victim of a phishing attack:
- Contact your IT admin if you are on a work computer.
- Immediately change all passwords associated with the accounts.
- Report any fraudulent activity to your bank and credit card company.
Outlook.com: If you receive a suspicious email message that asks for personal information, select the check box next to the message in your Outlook inbox. Select the arrow next to Junk, and then select Phishing.
Microsoft Office Outlook: While in the suspicious message, select Report message from the ribbon, and then select Phishing.
Microsoft: Create a new, blank email message with the one of the following recipients:
- Junk: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Phishing: email@example.com
Drag and drop the junk or phishing message into the new message. This will save the junk or phishing message as an attachment in the new message. Don't copy and paste the content of the message or forward the message (we need the original message so we can inspect the message headers). For more information, see Submit spam, non-spam, and phishing scam messages to Microsoft for analysis.
Anti-Phishing Working Group: firstname.lastname@example.org. The group uses reports generated from emails sent to fight phishing scams and hackers. ISPs, security vendors, financial institutions, and law enforcement agencies are involved.
If you’re on a suspicious website:
Microsoft Edge: While you’re on a suspicious site, select the More (…) icon > Help and feedback > Report Unsafe site. Follow the instructions on the webpage that displays to report the website.
Internet Explorer: While you’re on a suspicious site, select the gear icon, point to Safety, and then select Report Unsafe Website. Follow the instructions on the webpage that displays to report the website.
For more information, see Protect yourself from phishing.
How phishing works
Phishing attacks are scams that often use social engineering bait or lure content. For example, during tax season bait content can be tax-filing announcements that attempt to lure you into providing personal information such as your SSN or bank account information.
Legitimate-looking communication, usually email, that links to a phishing site is one of the most common methods used in phishing attacks. The phishing site typically mimics sign in pages that require users to input credentials and account information. The phishing site then captures the sensitive information as soon as the user provides it, giving attackers access to the information.
Another common phishing technique is the use of emails that direct you to open a malicious attachment like a PDF file. The attachment often contains a message asking you to sign in to another site, such as email or file sharing websites, to open the document. When you access these phishing sites using your sign-in credentials, the attacker now has access to your information and can gain additional personal information about you.
Phishing trends and techniques
In this scam, the attacker attempts to lure you with an email stating that you have an outstanding invoice from a known vendor or company. They then provide a link for you to access and pay your invoice. When you access the site, the attacker is poised to steal your personal information and funds.
You're asked to provide a credit card or other personal information so that your payment information can be updated with a commonly known vendor or supplier. The update is requested so that you can take delivery of your ordered goods. Generally, you may be familiar with the company and have likely done business with them in the past. However, you aren't aware of any items you have recently purchased from them.
Tax-themed phishing scams
A common IRS phishing scam is receiving an urgent email letter indicating that you owe money to the IRS. Often the email threatens legal action if you don't access the site in a timely manner and pay your taxes. When you access the site, the attackers can steal your personal credit card or bank information and drain your accounts.
An attacker sends a fraudulent email requesting you to open or download a document, often requiring you to sign in.
Phishing emails that deliver other threats
Phishing emails are often very effective, so attackers sometimes use them to distribute ransomware through links or attachments in emails. When run, the ransomware encrypts files and displays a ransom note, which asks you to pay a sum of money to access to your files.
We have also seen phishing emails that have links to tech support scam websites. These websites use various scare tactics to trick you into calling hotlines and paying for unnecessary "technical support services" that supposedly fix contrived device, platform, or software problems.
Targeted attacks against enterprises
Spear phishing is a targeted phishing attack that involves highly customized lure content. Attackers will typically do reconnaissance work by surveying social media and other information sources about their intended target.
Spear phishing may involve tricking you into logging into fake sites and divulging credentials. I may also lure you into opening documents by clicking on links that automatically install malware. With this malware in place, attackers can remotely manipulate the infected computer.
The implanted malware serves as the point of entry for a more sophisticated attack, known as an advanced persistent threat (APT). APTs are designed to establish control and steal data over extended periods. Attackers may try to deploy more covert hacking tools, move laterally to other computers, compromise or create privileged accounts, and regularly exfiltrate information from compromised networks.
Whaling is a form of phishing directed at high-level or senior executives within specific companies to gain access to their credentials and/or bank information. The content of the email may be written as a legal subpoena, customer complaint, or other executive issue. This type of attack can also lead to an APT attack within an organization.
Business email compromise
Business email compromise (BEC) is a sophisticated scam that targets businesses who frequently work with foreign suppliers or do money wire transfers. One of the most common schemes used by BEC attackers involves gaining access to a company’s network through a spear phishing attack. The attacker creates a domain similar to the company they're targeting, or spoofs their email to scam users into releasing personal account information for money transfers.
How to protect against phishing attacks
Social engineering attacks are designed to take advantage of a user's possible lapse in decision-making. Be aware and never provide sensitive or personal information through email or unknown websites, or over the phone. Remember, phishing emails are designed to appear legitimate.
The best protection is awareness and education. Don’t open attachments or links in unsolicited emails, even if the emails came from a recognized source. If the email is unexpected, be wary about opening the attachment and verify the URL.
Enterprises should educate and train their employees to be wary of any communication that requests personal or financial information. They should also instruct employees to report the threat to the company’s security operations team immediately.
Here are several telltale signs of a phishing scam:
The links or URLs provided in emails are not pointing to the correct location or are pointing to a third-party site not affiliated with the sender of the email. For example, in the image below the URL provided doesn't match the URL that you'll be taken to.
There's a request for personal information such as social security numbers or bank or financial information. Official communications won't generally request personal information from you in the form of an email.
Items in the email address will be changed so that it is similar enough to a legitimate email address, but has added numbers or changed letters.
The message is unexpected and unsolicited. If you suddenly receive an email from an entity or a person you rarely deal with, consider this email suspect.
The message or the attachment asks you to enable macros, adjust security settings, or install applications. Normal emails won't ask you to do this.
The message contains errors. Legitimate corporate messages are less likely to have typographic or grammatical errors or contain wrong information.
The sender address doesn't match the signature on the message itself. For example, an email is purported to be from Mary of Contoso Corp, but the sender address is email@example.com.
There are multiple recipients in the “To” field and they appear to be random addresses. Corporate messages are normally sent directly to individual recipients.
The greeting on the message itself doesn't personally address you. Apart from messages that mistakenly address a different person, greetings that misuse your name or pull your name directly from your email address tend to be malicious.
The website looks familiar but there are inconsistencies or things that aren't quite right. Warning signs include outdated logos, typos, or ask users to give additional information that is not asked by legitimate sign-in websites.
The page that opens is not a live page, but rather an image that is designed to look like the site you are familiar with. A pop-up may appear that requests credentials.
If in doubt, contact the business by known channels to verify if any suspicious emails are in fact legitimate.
For more information, download and read this Microsoft e-book on preventing social engineering attacks, especially in enterprise environments.
Software solutions for organizations
Microsoft Edge and Windows Defender Application Guard offer protection from the increasing threat of targeted attacks using Microsoft's industry-leading Hyper-V virtualization technology. If a browsed website is deemed untrusted, the Hyper-V container will isolate that device from the rest of your network thereby preventing access to your enterprise data.
Microsoft Exchange Online Protection (EOP) offers enterprise-class reliability and protection against spam and malware, while maintaining access to email during and after emergencies. Using various layers of filtering, EOP can provide different controls for spam filtering, such as bulk mail controls and international spam, that will further enhance your protection services.
Use Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) to help protect your email, files, and online storage against malware. It offers holistic protection in Microsoft Teams, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Visio, SharePoint Online, and OneDrive for Business. By protecting against unsafe attachments and expanding protection against malicious links, it complements the security features of Exchange Online Protection to provide better zero-day protection.
For more tips and software solutions, see prevent malware infection.
More information about phishing attacks
For information on the latest phishing attacks, techniques, and trends, you can read these entries on the Microsoft Security blog: