Phishing trends and techniques

Phishing attacks are scams that often use social engineering bait or lure content. 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.

Below are some of the most common phishing techniques attackers will employ to try to steal information or gain access to your devices.

Invoice phishing

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.

Payment/delivery scam

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.

Downloads

An attacker sends a fraudulent email requesting you to open or download a document attachment, such as a PDF. 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 emails that deliver other threats

Phishing emails are often 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.

Spear phishing

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

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.

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: