How to Recognize Phishing Messages

According to recent stats, phishing scams are accountable for a staggering 90% of data breaches, most of which rely on human error for success. That’s right – no matter how robust your cybersecurity defenses are, a single employee’s rogue reply to a phishing email could compromise the security and integrity of your whole operation.

How to Spot a Phishing Message

What comes to mind when you think of a cybersecurity threat? Smart menacing criminals creating new and complex forms of malware? Scary computer viruses ready to infect your entire IT infrastructure at any given time? Although carefully orchestrated cyberattacks are very real and require prevention with anti-viral software or other means, businesses are significantly more likely to fall victim to opportunistic phishing messages.  

According to recent stats, phishing scams are accountable for a staggering 90% of data breaches, most of which rely on human error for success. That’s right – no matter how robust your cybersecurity defenses are, a single employee’s rogue reply to a phishing email could compromise the security and integrity of your whole operation.

Fortunately, it is possible to protect yourself and your colleagues against phishing attacks by learning how to spot phishing messages. Many fraudulent emails contain tell-tale signs that should warrant caution in recipients and help them to avoid financial or reputational damage. 

What are phishing messages?

Phishing messages are fraudulent communications designed to obtain sensitive personal information from the recipient. Such messages represent a common cybersecurity threat and can be used to access victims’ account information.

Phishing emails seek to obtain sensitive information in a few different ways. Some scammers urge recipients to reply urgently with their account details, often pretending to be from a bank or financial institution to generate an air of legitimacy. Other forms of phishing contain links and attachments that redirect to data capture forms or contain malware.

While 96% of phishing attacks are sent via email, some scammers use text messages or telephone calls instead. These alternate types of attacks are known as smishing and vishing, respectively. 

Many phishers are amateurs when it comes to creating convincing emails. Because of that, phishing messages commonly contain grammatical errors, strange URLs, wonky graphics, and an odd tone of voice. To boost their chances of success, many cybercriminals send out mass messages to email addresses across the world. They only require a small number of people to respond to profit from their efforts, after all. 

How does phishing work?

Phishing scams can vary in form and intent. However, a typical phishing operation proceeds like so:

  1. The cybercriminal creates a mailing list of potential victims. Often, they use business addresses to ensure maximum returns.
  2. The scammer will then create a fake email address or web pages with which to extract data from unsuspecting victims.
  3. Next, they will send messages that appear to be from a trustworthy party such as a bank, financial institution, energy company, parcel delivery service, or other. 
  4. Finally, the cybercriminals will collect the data and use it to commit fraudulent offenses, purchase expensive goods, or bribe victims. 

What are the common signs of a phishing scam?

Although most phishing scams are amateurish and easy to spot, cybercriminals are getting better at creating convincing messages. Many appear to come from well-known organizations. 

If you receive an email that asks for your personal information or contains a link or attachment, you must always exercise caution. Here are a few tell-tale signs that a seemingly genuine email is fake:

  • It claims to be from a bank: Banks never send emails asking for personal information such as bank account numbers, Social Security numbers, or home addresses. If you receive an email claiming to be from your bank that you suspect to be fraudulent, contact the bank right away.
  • Generic greetings: Non-personalized greetings such as “Dear subscriber” or “Dear Sir/Madam” suggest that the email has been sent to a large mailing list.
  • A sense of urgency: Phishing scams often work by instilling a sense of panic or urgency in recipients and encouraging rash decisions. If you receive a concerning email that says your bank account has been hacked or your personal information has been stolen, don’t reply hastily. If it looks legitimate, get in touch with the organization that appears to have sent the email to double-check and NEVER reply directly to the email.
  • Unbelievable offers: Promises of free money or huge discounts on luxury items are probably too good to be true. 
  • Unrecognized senders: You must always treat unrecognized email addresses or organizations with suspicion.
  • Email addresses that don’t match the sender’s name: Scammers can easily set their name to be that of a popular organization. However, most scammers use email addresses that don’t actually match up to their name and contain a host of numbers and letters. 
  • Hyperlinks and attachments: Phishing emails and texts often contain dodgy hyperlinks and attachments designed to steal your data. If you receive an email with a hyperlink, hover over it to view the whole domain. Many spammers use slightly misspelled URLs to lure their unsuspecting victims. 
  • Poor quality of language: Hackers are often a little lazy when it comes to spelling, grammar, and syntax. Never trust an email with significant errors. 

How to handle phishing messages 

Phishing emails are, unfortunately, almost impossible to avoid. However, you can prevent them from causing any harm to you or your organization by examining all emails carefully and avoiding divulging sensitive information on a whim. Here are a few things businesses can do to protect themselves from phishing attacks:

  • Organize cybersecurity training events for employees: You should offer all employees training about how to identify phishing attacks, as unsuspecting email account holders are hacker’s primary targets. Knowledge is power, after all. 
  • Keep your IT security software up to date: Antivirus software and spam filters can provide some protection against phishing attacks and prevent malware from causing significant damage to your IT infrastructure. 
  • Institute a reporting process for employees: Create a dedicated email address to which employees can forward suspicious emails. Your IT team should monitor this address and block malicious senders accordingly. 

So, there you have it! As you can see, phishing scams should not pose a major threat to your business if you have the correct protocols in place to prevent attacks. If you would like more information about data security and privacy legislation, Accountable HQ is here to help.

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