What Is a Phishing Attack and How to Protect Yourself
They are simple, pervasive, and notoriously hard to prevent. Here’s how to guard against phishing attacks.
Updated May 17, 2021 • 2 min read
Amid the ever-escalating arms race between cybercriminals and the digital security industry, one simple yet effective scam continues to wreak disproportionate havoc across the cryptocurrency space and beyond: phishing attacks. Phishing attacks are extremely insidious; it’s hard to see them coming, which is even more reason to be aware of them.
During a phishing attack, often a user is tricked into giving up their sensitive data through a phishing website in an attempt to trick a victim into disclosing sensitive information or parting with funds. While the target of a phishing attack may be limited to an individual, in most cases the attacker’s broader goal is to compromise one or more systems the victim has access to. If a phishing attack on an individual is successful, the consequences can reverberate far and wide, affecting other users and adjacent networks with alarming speed.
Phishing attacks are relatively cheap and easy to implement. However, this type of online attack can often be mitigated or reduced once you know what to look for.
How Does Phishing Work?
In most instances, phishing attacks take the form of misleading emails, text messages, or social media posts which can trick people into inadvertently responding with private information, transferring funds to the attacker’s cryptocurrency wallet, or clicking a malicious link which compromises passwords. While most phishing attacks now take place online, these attacks can also occur over the phone or via offline communication channels.
In order to succeed, a phishing attack must grab your attention, and oftentimes the content of the malicious message will include an urgent call to action or attractive reward in an attempt to prompt a quick and reflexive response.
For example, a phishing message may provide a link encouraging you to “claim a prize” within the next few hours, or impersonate an automated message from a cryptocurrency exchange you use asking you to verify your login credentials in response to purported “suspicious activity” in your account.
Beyond the actual content of the message itself, there are three common features of fraudulent messages which indicate that you may dealing with a potential phishing attempt:
Disguised sender identities: While poorly performed phishing attacks can sometimes be visually identified via typos or awkward formatting, more sophisticated attackers often use convincingly forged digital identities which can be hard to distinguish at a glance. Efforts include copying an organization’s distinguishing content, such as specific text, fonts, logos, or color schemes used by the legitimate website in order to make the fraudulent message look authentic. This particular form of deception is also known as spoofing.
Misleading links: Phishing attacks often include shortened URLs or embedded links which obfuscate the true nature of the actual link destination. For instance, the displayed anchor text of a hyperlink may be completely different from the actual link URL. The attacker may use subtle typos such as replacing a lowercase “l” with an uppercase “L” in the link in order to visually mirror an authentic link destination. In some instances, a malicious link leads to an illegitimate website or domain, which is a superficial clone of a genuine business, which can be a convincing trap prompting you to divulge additional personal information.
Content misalignment: While many phishing scams are difficult to detect at a glance, at times there will be misalignment between the stated intent of the message and the sender or recipient. For instance, the sender’s email address domain may have no relation to what the email is about, or the message may claim to be from a crypto custodian you have never been in contact with. In these instances, the phishing attempt is much easier to detect, but it’s important to note that these easy identifiers have grown increasingly scarce.
How to Prevent Phishing Attacks
While large-scale phishing attacks do not occur frequently, smaller-scale phishing attacks take place on a daily basis, and these attacks are the most common type of social engineering attacks in the modern era. Luckily, there are several ways to protect yourself from these attacks:
Constant vigilance: When it comes to preventing phishing attacks, the primary solution relies on your ability to identify the potential risk at the first point of contact. If you inadvertently divulge confidential information to an attacker or compromise your accounts or devices by clicking a malicious link, none of the other preventative measures listed below may be enough to protect you.
Additional layers of authentication: Since phishing attacks are made possible entirely through human error, using personal security measures such as two-factor authentication or a password manager can mitigate the risks of these attacks in the event one of your credentials is compromised.
Secure digital asset storage: While there are pros and cons to spreading your digital assets across multiple accounts and wallets, one reliable method of asset protection involves keeping a significant portion of your funds in cold storage. While assets in a cold wallet may be harder to access and trade with, these same features make those funds substantially harder to steal even if your digital identity is compromised.
The Bottom Line
While the blockchain space is brimming with exciting projects and platforms at various stages of development, it’s important for crypto enthusiasts to limit their online engagement to credible, established platforms with mature and multilayered security protocols whenever possible.
By exploiting human trust and fallibility to bypass formal security mechanisms, phishing attacks remain pervasive and notoriously hard to prevent without prior knowledge of the common attack vectors. The continued prevalence of phishing attacks highlights the central role played by the individual in protecting their digital assets and serves as a reminder that few systems are impervious to human error.
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