A phishing attack is a form of cybercrime where the attacker poses as a trusted entity to trick victims into revealing sensitive information, such as usernames, passwords, credit card details, and more.
The risks associated with phishing attacks are significant, ranging from financial losses and reputational damage to exposure of sensitive data. In fact, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, phishing was the most common type of cybercrime in 2022—and its prevalence continues to rise.
As such, it’s crucial for businesses and individuals alike to be aware of phishing threats and take proactive steps to prevent them. This article provides a comprehensive guide on how to prevent phishing attacks, with a focus on enterprise-level strategies but also including some that are applicable to individuals.
8 phishing prevention best practices
The best defense against phishing attacks is staying informed and vigilant, but there are other steps you and your employees can take, too. Here are some top tips to prevent getting phished.
1. Train your employees regularly
One of the most effective defenses against phishing attacks is education. Regularly educating and training employees on the different types of phishing attacks, how to recognize them and what to do when they encounter one can greatly reduce the risk of a successful attack.
Training should be comprehensive and ongoing to stay abreast of the evolving tactics of cyber threats. It should cover the latest phishing tactics, such as email phishing, vishing, smishing, and other deceptive practices. Simulated phishing exercises can also be beneficial to give employees practical experience in recognizing and responding to phishing attempts.
2. Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA)
Multi-factor authentication (MFA) provides an additional layer of security beyond just usernames and passwords. MFA requires additional verification—like a fingerprint, a physical token, or a temporary code sent to a personal device—before users can log into a particular app or account.
With MFA, even if a phishing attempt successfully acquires an employee’s login credentials, the chances of a successful breach are significantly reduced.
3. Update software regularly
Software updates often include patches to fix vulnerabilities that could be targeted by cybercriminals. Regularly updating all software, including operating systems, antivirus software, and applications, can therefore help to protect against phishing attacks. Automating these updates can ensure that they are not overlooked.
4. Use anti-phishing tools
There are a variety of anti-phishing tools available that can help to prevent phishing attacks. For example, email filters can help to identify and block phishing emails, and web browser extensions can warn users when they are about to visit a potentially fraudulent website. Many cybersecurity software solutions also include anti-phishing features.
5. Use secure and encrypted connections
Encryption helps to protect sensitive information by making it unintelligible to anyone who does not have the decryption key. By only using secure, encrypted connections (such as websites that use HTTPS), businesses can help to ensure that any data transmitted is protected from eavesdropping or interception by cyber criminals.
6. Regularly backup important data
In the event of a successful phishing attack, having regularly backed-up data can help to minimize the damage. Regular backups ensure that an up-to-date copy of all important information is available, reducing the potential loss of data. Backup data should be stored in a secure, off-site location.
7. Establish a strong security policy
A strong security policy sets the standard for cybersecurity practices within an organization. This policy should cover a range of areas including password management, use of company devices, internet usage, and handling of sensitive data. Clear policies help employees understand their responsibilities and expectations regarding cybersecurity.
8. Have an incident response plan
Despite the best prevention efforts, phishing attacks can still occur. It’s key to have an incident response plan in place to manage the situation effectively when it arises. It should outline the steps to be taken in the event of an attack, including how to suppress the breach, eradicate the threat, recover any lost data and prevent future attacks. Regular testing and updating of this plan is also important.
How to identify phishing attacks
Phishing attacks can take many forms, but they all share the common goal of tricking the target into divulging sensitive information or taking an action that compromises security. Here are some key indicators that can help you identify potential phishing attempts:
Suspicious email addresses
The email address of the sender is often the first red flag. Phishing emails may appear to come from a legitimate source, but the actual email address may be off by a letter or may use a domain that is very similar to, but not exactly the same as, a trusted domain. Always verify the email address of the sender.
Many phishing emails start with generic greetings like “Dear Customer” rather than your name. This is often because phishing scams are sent out in large batches and the scammers do not know your name.
Poor grammar and spelling
While not always the case, phishing emails often contain questionable grammar and spelling errors. Professional organizations usually have teams dedicated to communication and such errors are rare in official correspondence.
Request for personal information
A legitimate organization will never ask for sensitive information through email or text message. If you receive a request for information like your password, credit card number, or social security number, it’s likely a phishing attempt.
Dubious links or attachments
Phishing attacks often use embedded links that lead to fake websites designed to steal your information. Always hover over a link to see the actual URL before clicking. Be wary of unexpected attachments, as they can contain malware.
Urgent or threatening language
Phishing attempts often use threatening or urgent language to pressure you into responding hastily without thinking. Be skeptical of messages that claim you must act immediately to prevent your account from being closed, to update your information, or to claim a prize.
Too good to be true
If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Phishing scams often lure victims with the promise of large sums of money, unbelievable discounts, or other enticing offers.
Remember, phishing attacks prey on hasty reactions. When in doubt, take the time to verify the legitimacy of the message through other means, such as directly contacting the organization through an official phone number or website.
Where phishing attacks can occur
Phishing attacks can occur in various ways, including via email, phone call, text messages, and fraudulent websites. Here are some of the common types and media associated with phishing attacks:
- Phishing email: This is the most common type, where attackers send fraudulent emails that seem to be from reputable sources to trick recipients into revealing sensitive data.
- Domain spoofing: Domain spoofing involves creating websites that look very similar to legitimate ones to trick users into entering their credentials or personal information.
- Voice phishing (vishing): This type of phishing is carried out over the phone. The attacker pretends to be from a trusted organization or authority and tricks the victim into sharing personal information.
- SMS phishing (smishing): In this type, the attacker sends text messages to the victim, which appear to come from reputable sources. These messages usually contain a link leading to a phishing website or a phone number that connects to the attacker.
- Social media phishing: Attackers use social media platforms to trick users into revealing their personal information. This can be done through direct messages or posts that lead to phishing websites.
- Clone phishing: This involves replicating a legitimate email from a trusted source with a malicious replacement. Clone phishing emails usually claim there was an issue with the original message and the user must click a link or download an attachment.
- Search engine phishing: In this type of attack, cybercriminals create fraudulent websites that appear in search engine results. When users click on these sites and enter their information, it falls into the hands of the attackers.
- Whale phishing: Also known as whaling, these attacks specifically target high-profile individuals like CEOs or CFOs. Attackers often spend a significant amount of time creating highly personalized emails to trick these individuals into revealing sensitive company information.
- Spear phishing: This is a more targeted form of phishing where the attacker has done their homework on their victims. The phishing attempt is highly personalized, making it harder to recognize.
- Pharming: This type of phishing attack involves cybercriminals redirecting a website’s traffic to a fake site they control. Even if a user types the correct web address, they’re taken to the fraudulent site where their information can be stolen.
Remember, the first step in preventing phishing attacks is awareness. By knowing the many ways these attacks can occur, individuals and organizations can be better prepared to recognize and respond effectively.
Tools that help prevent phishing attacks
The best tools to prevent phishing attacks are your own eyes and brain. Reading articles like this one will help you develop the sharp eye and healthy skepticism needed to navigate phishy waters.
Still, there are software tools you can put in place that can help filter out some of the worst offenders. These include email security solutions, web browser extensions and toolbars, and of course antivirus software.
Email security solutions
Email security solutions are designed to identify and block phishing emails before they reach the recipient. These solutions often use advanced algorithms and machine learning to analyze and filter incoming messages for signs of phishing attempts.
Some popular email security solutions include Mimecast, Proofpoint, and Barracuda.
Web browser extensions
Browser extensions can be installed to help identify and block malicious websites. They often use regularly updated databases of known phishing sites and display warnings when a user attempts to visit a potentially dangerous website.
Examples of such extensions include Netcraft, Google Safe Browsing, and Avast Online Security.
Anti-phishing toolbars are another type of browser extension specifically designed to detect phishing websites. They compare the URLs of websites you visit with known phishing sites and alert you if there’s a match.
Some well-known anti-phishing toolbars include Norton Safe Web and McAfee WebAdvisor.
Antivirus and anti-malware software
Many antivirus and anti-malware programs include phishing protection features that can help safeguard against phishing attacks. These programs scan emails and attachments, as well as monitor web browsing to detect and block potentially harmful content.
Popular antivirus software with phishing protection includes Norton, Bitdefender, and Kaspersky.
Domain Name System (DNS) filtering can be used to block access to known phishing websites. By intercepting DNS requests for malicious domains, DNS filtering solutions prevent users from accidentally visiting phishing sites.
Some DNS filtering services include Cisco Umbrella, WebTitan, and DNSFilter.
Security awareness training platforms
As employee education is key to preventing phishing attacks, there are several platforms available that focus on security awareness training. These platforms provide interactive and engaging training modules, including simulated phishing exercises, to help employees recognize and respond to phishing attempts.
Some examples of security awareness training platforms are KnowBe4, Infosec IQ, and Mimecast Awareness Training.
Password managers help users create strong, distinct passwords for each of their accounts, making it more difficult for attackers to gain access using stolen credentials. Many password managers also include features that warn users when they attempt to enter their credentials on a suspicious website.
Examples of password managers include LastPass, Dashlane, and 1Password.
MFA solutions provide an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide additional forms of verification in addition to their password. There are various MFA solutions available, including hardware tokens, authenticator apps, and biometric authentication.
Some well-known MFA providers are Duo Security, Google Authenticator, and RSA SecurID.
By using a combination of these tools and implementing robust security measures, organizations and individuals can significantly lower the risk of falling victim to phishing.
Responding to a phishing attack
If you think—or know—that you’ve been the victim of a phishing attack, don’t panic. In most cases, there’s still plenty of time to mitigate any potential damage, if you keep your head and act quickly.
Follow these steps to respond effectively to a phishing attack:
- Identify the attack: The first step is to recognize that a phishing attack has occurred. The signs of an attack can vary, but common indicators include suspicious emails, unexpected password change requests, or unauthorized activity on an account.
- Contain the attack: Once identified, the next step is to contain the phishing attack. This might involve disconnecting the affected device from the network to prevent the spread of malware, changing compromised passwords, or disabling compromised accounts.
- Report the attack: Report the phishing attack to your IT or cybersecurity team immediately. They can take further steps to secure the network and investigate the attack. If the phishing attack is received via email, report it to your email provider, as many have a “report phishing” option. In a business setting, you should also inform your supervisor or the relevant department.
- Remove malicious software: If the phishing attack involved malware, you’ll need to remove it. This generally involves running a scan with a trusted antivirus or anti-malware program, which can find and remove the malicious software.
- Assess the damage: Determine what information was compromised in the attack. This could be login credentials, financial information, or other sensitive data. Depending on what information was exposed, you may need to take additional steps, such as notifying financial institutions or setting up credit monitoring.
- Strengthen security measures: After responding to a phishing attack, it’s crucial to strengthen security measures to prevent future attacks. This could involve setting up MFA, providing additional cybersecurity training, or implementing more robust cybersecurity software.
- Review and learn: Finally, conduct a post-incident review to understand how the attack happened and identify areas for improvement. This can provide valuable insights and help to further strengthen your cybersecurity defenses.
Remember, swift and decisive action is key when responding to a phishing attack. The faster you can identify and contain the attack, the better you can minimize its impact.
Bottom line: Preventing phishing attacks
In a world that’s increasingly digital, phishing attacks represent a significant threat to both individuals and organizations. By understanding how these attacks occur, implementing strong prevention measures, utilizing the right tools, and having a plan in place to respond effectively, the risks can be significantly mitigated.
Regular education and vigilance are key; remember, cybersecurity is not a one-time effort, but a continuous process. As technology evolves, so too will the tactics employed by cybercriminals. Therefore, staying informed and updated on the latest cybersecurity best practices is crucial in this ongoing battle against phishing attacks.
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