How can I identify a phishing email?

by | Jan 14 2021 | Criminal Defence, Popular

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Kitty Leask LGBT Lawyers
By Alex Ashcroft
Alex heads up LGBT Lawyers' web design and writes about LGBT legal issues in his spare time. While not part of the LGBT community himself, Alex is an avid supporter of LGBT rights. With interests in politics and connections in Brighton's LGBT music scene, Alex brings another valuable perspective to LGBT life.

Phishing Email Blog | Read time: 10-12 Minutes. 

The History of phishing emails

Phishing emails have grown in the last 30 years to become one of the most common scams run by criminal fraudsters. This article explains the types of phishing attacks used, how the attacks target different platforms, why the phishing emails are successful, how to avoid attacks and what to do if you have already fallen victim. Furthermore, this blog ends with how a lawyer can help if you have fallen victim or have been caught by the police launching phishing emails.

What is phishing?

Phishing is a type of cyber-attack used by fraudulent criminals to deliver disguised content which contains malware or malicious attacks on unsuspecting victims. One of the most common strategies used to provide content is by emailing documents which appear to be of value to the victim but contain hidden malware. Furthermore, the emails can include links with a disguised malicious payload that distributes Trojan malware or ransomware without users being aware. Links sent via email may also lead to web pages designed to replicate legitimate sites such as banks, social media pages or even corporate sites. Moreover, the replicated sites will then store the victim’s credentials and later be used for fraudulent activities.

What is a Sophisticated phishing attack?

Phishing attacks will continue to be used as fraudulent scams because attack operators can revamp them to stay relevant. Furthermore, the main component of a sophisticated phishing attack is based on social engineering. For example, suppose the individual launching the attack has researched a company or victim. They can develop a targeted campaign based on information they know the users are likely to use. Moreover, the person launching the attack may also create a masquerade campaign as a trusted entity to trick victims into opening an email. These types of attacks can be used to steal various forms of data such as emails addresses, login credentials, bank details, credit card details, social security numbers and personal addresses. Alternatively, the attacker can use the information for other reasons, such as monitoring the daily activities of a company or even selling the data on the dark web.

Sophisticated phishing attacks which are based on researching a specific target or business are referred to as “spear-phishing”. Moreover, spear-phishing is a high-tech attack that is highly focused and involves attacks collecting considerable research on victims.

What is a Basic phishing attack?

A basic form of phishing attack is a campaign which involves low level targeted attacks, which are aimed in reaching as many individuals as possible. These types of attacks produce a low yield of victims and are easily identifiable. Basic phishing attack email campaigns vary, however, common campaigns include:

1. Emails informing users they have won a prize.
2. The impersonation of banks or financial institutions, or even online shops attempting to verify non-existent purchases.
3. Offering free coupons.
4. Informing you that you need to confirm personal information.
5. Claiming that you are eligible to apply for a government refund.

Basic phishing attacks are the most common type of phishing attack. A critical weakness which allows basic phishing attacks to work is that individuals do not have the time to analyse every individual email they receive. Therefore, basic attacks send mass amounts of emails hoping a small number of victims do not sufficiently check to see if it fake. Research conducted by Symantec suggests that one in every 2,000 emails sent every day contains a phishing email, which indicates 135 million phishing attacks are attempted daily.

How have phishing attacks impacted the LGBT+ community?

Phishing Email - LGBT Coloured Picture

Phishing attacks are commonly targeted at social media networks or dating apps. Grindr, an online dating app was target by phishing attacks last year. The phishing attempts were from fake profiles designed to obtain a monetary gain from its user database. Moreover, the campaign created by fraudsters targeted the users of the LGBT focused app users by offering additional services that were not legitimate.

The service which was organised by the fraudsters targeted users on the app with a message stating, “attractive looking person look to hook up”. However, once users accept the message, the fraudster will ask the victim if they have heard of an “LGID” form.
Once the victim replies to the scammer, the scammer will give fake information explaining they have been subject to a homophobic attack. Shortly after, the scammer will add that an “LGID” is a form of identification that will analyse if the Grindr users have a criminal record. The scammer will then send the victim a link which requires them to pay £2 for processing the ID.

Finally, the link the fraudster sent will state that 50p of the £2 payment will be donated towards Harassment Victims Community Foundation (HVCF). However, once the unsuspecting victim has entered their card information, they will be charged £50.

Could a phishing attack target an LGBT+ app again in the future?

Phishing attacks are dynamic and can be tailored to fit the narrative of certain types of software. They are a favourable form of attack which can be used by fraudsters. Therefore, there is a high chance an LGBT focused or any other general app will be a target in the future. You may be wondering at this point; how can I identify a phishing email? Not to worry, the next sections explain precisely how you can identify, prevent and reduce the risk of a phishing attack.

How to identify a basic phishing email attack

Phishing email - logo

There are various giveaways which can be easily identifiable with a basic phishing email campaign. These easily recognisable elements may include:

Grammatical errors

Grammatical errors can be a big give away to users who indicate the email may not be legitimate. Furthermore, users who are less professional phishing operators may produce poorly designed messages and struggle to make the email sound natural. Moreover, analysing the email to check grammatical errors’ consistency can be a crucial indicator of a phishing attack.

The link sent in the phishing email

The link inside an email can be an effective way to analyse if the email is a phishing attack. For example, phishing emails will usually include links which are miss-spelt or are subdomains. An easy way to avoid clicking on these phishing links is to type in the legitimate site address into Google manually. Furthermore, using this method, you will avoid using a cloned web page, and you can also cross-reference to the URL’s to analyse if it was legit.

A strange sender address

When receiving an email, you must examine the sender’s address. The sender’s address can be critical information to identifying if an email is illegitimate. A method to check if the sender is legit is by cross-referencing your contacts to see if the sender is attempting to impersonate someone you already know.

The email asks you to confirm personal information

A key signifier of a phishing email can be if the email is requesting that you need to confirm or update personal information. If the email includes information requesting confirmation of details, it will usually be written to create a sense of urgency. The urgency is to prevent the victim from giving the email to much thought and realising that it may be illegitimate.

Consider the purpose of the email

Be cautious when reading emails. A big giveaway in phishing emails is that the email’s purpose may not be applicable or relevant. A critical method to distinguish between a legitimate and phishing email is by double-checking the email’s purpose. If the email seems to be random or irrelevant, it may be a phishing email.

How to prevent a sophisticated phishing email attack

The options above present how individuals can identify basic phishing emails. However, the considerations used to determine basic attacks may not apply to more sophisticated phishing attacks. The sophisticated campaigns used will be targeted and tested by the operators launching the attack. Therefore, the fundamental methods which can be used to avoid more these types of attacks include:

Privatising publicly available information

A key strategy that can be used to prevent sophisticated phishing attacks is to remove information about yourself that is publicly available. By removing the information accessible online, you reduce the chance of an attack operator researching you. Moreover, a vital advantage of the operator not being able to research you is that they will not tailor a campaign to you.

Ensuring your phone number is unlisted.

Unlisted numbers can be assigned to both landlines and mobile phones. The first step to making your number unlisted is by informing your phone provider that you want your number to be unpublished and unlisted. Furthermore, you can also call the National Do Not Call Registry. By signing up to the scheme, you will gain more control over the calls you receive.

Antivirus software

A critical method which can be used to prevent sophisticated phishing attacks is to acquire antivirus software. Moreover, a key advantage of using antivirus software is that if you open a phishing email, the antivirus software can notify you that malware has been downloaded. However, malware and viruses can adapt and change, meaning that 100% protection against phishing links is not possible using antivirus.

Encryption of sensitive information

Data encryption translates data into a form of code so that users can only access it with a decryption key, or password that can read it. Furthermore, data encryption can prevent phishing emails from stealing personal data as the operator will need to crack the encryption to access the personal data stored.

2-step Authentication

Ensuring all your accounts have 2-step verification can prevent phishing emails operators from using the data to access your accounts. Furthermore, 2-step verification allows you to link your login recovery details to either your email or phone number. A key advantage of using this type of verification strategy is that it’s unlikely phishing attack operators will access your phone. Therefore, it allows you to recover your account by verifying your details via your mobile. Additionally, email can be used, but it is a less secure type of 2-step verification method as phishing attack operators can access your email using the internet.

What to do if you have already responded to a phishing attack

Phishing email - lgbt lawyers

If you have already fallen victim to a phishing email, you can carry out the following steps:

1. Immediately call your bank and inform them if you have filled in your bank details to a suspicious email.

2. If you have filled in login credentials to a suspicious web page, you should change all your passwords linked with the account and set-up 2 step verification.

3. Contact the IT technician if you have received a suspicious work email. If this is not possible, remove the email and block the sender.

4. Suspect your account has already been compromised? If so, contact the software’s helpline or an administrator

5.  Clicked on a suspicious link and downloaded the software onto your computer? Open your antivirus software and run a full scan. Alternatively, if you do not have antivirus software, manually search the file name and remove the software by deleting it.

If you have fallen victim to a phishing email and have lost money, inform your bank, and report the crime to Action Fraud. Moreover, if the email is still in your inbox, forward it to the Suspicious Email Reporting Service (Sers) at report@phishing.gov.uk.

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