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What is Phishing in Cyber Security: Definition and Prevention

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    Phishing is one of the most common and dangerous cybersecurity threats facing individuals and organizations today. As more sensitive data and transactions move online, phishing scams attempt to trick users into handing over personal information that can then be used for identity theft, financial fraud, and other crimes. Staying vigilant and informed is crucial to protecting yourself and your data from phishing attacks.

    What is Phishing?

    Phishing is a type of social engineering cyber attack that uses fraudulent communications to trick users into disclosing sensitive personal information or installing malware. Phishing messages often appear to come from a trustworthy source and contain links or attachments that install malware when opened.

    The goal of phishing is to steal sensitive data like login credentials, credit card details, or other personal information that can be used for financial gain. Phished data may also be sold on dark web marketplaces. Beyond direct financial theft, phishing can also give attackers access to install additional malware, take control of user accounts, or gain a foothold within a corporate network.

    What is Phishing in Cyber Security

    Common Types of Phishing Attacks

    Phishing scams may take various forms, including:

    • Spear phishing – Targeted phishing attacks aimed at specific individuals or organizations. Spear phishing emails use personal details to appear more legitimate.
    • Whaling – Spear phishing targeted specifically at senior executives or other high-profile targets.
    • Vishing – Phishing attempts carried out over voice calls or phone scams.
    • Smishing – Phishing through SMS text messages.
    • Pharming – Redirecting users to fake websites through DNS hijacking.
    • Deceptive Phishing – Spoofed emails pretending to be from a legitimate organization with fake login pages to harvest user credentials.

    What Information Do Phishers Seek?

    Phishing scams attempt to trick unsuspecting users into handing over sensitive personal data including:

    • Login credentials for online accounts
    • Bank account and credit card details
    • Personal identifiable information like Social Security numbers
    • Medical records and health insurance data
    • Digital signatures, fingerprints, or facial recognition data
    • Intellectual property like proprietary code or confidential documents
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    With this data, phishers can directly steal funds, sell user data on the dark web, or utilize it for identity fraud.

    Recognizing Phishing Scams

    The first line of defense is recognizing the signs of a phishing attempt. Phishing emails, calls, and scams increasingly appear legitimate and attractive on the surface. Training employees to identify subtle red flags can stop phishing in its tracks.

    Identifying Suspicious Emails

    Carefully examine any emails that ask you to click links, open attachments, or provide sensitive information. Warning signs may include:

    • Spoofed sender details – While the display name seems official, hovering over the address reveals a suspicious email address.
    • Urgent language – Scare tactics like threats of account suspension aim to get you act before thinking.
    • Spelling and grammar errors – Sloppy mistakes indicate lack of official branding.
    • Generic greetings – Impersonal greetings like “Dear user” demonstrate the email wasn’t written to you specifically.
    • Suspicious attachments – Unexpected files you didn’t request should raise red flags.
    • Unusual links – Hover over links to preview the destination URL for mismatched or odd sounding links.
    • Requests for sensitive information – Legitimate organizations generally don’t ask for personal details over email.

    Identifying Suspicious Websites

    Use caution when entering credentials or sensitive information on any website:

    • No padlock icon – Secure sites will have a padlock icon by the URL bar along with an “s” after the “http” (https://).
    • Mismatched URLs – Double check that the URL matches the expected website. Scam sites often use similar addresses.
    • Poor spelling/grammar – Typos and other errors can indicate a scam site.
    • Generic branding – Plain logos and designs lacking official fonts and colors may indicate a fake site.
    • Pop-ups and ads – Excessive ads and browser pop-ups are common with scam sites.

    Identifying Suspicious Phone Calls

    Use the following warning signs to identify fraudulent calls:

    • Caller ID spoofing – Caller ID may be spoofed with fake numbers that appear legitimate.
    • Requests for immediate action – Creating false urgency and pressure to bypass security protocols.
    • Verification of sensitive info – Asking for account numbers, passwords or other sensitive details.
    • Threats and warnings – Tactics like unpaid bills or deactivated accounts to scare victims.
    • Odd noises/accents – Background chatter or thick accents from overseas call centers.

    Safe Browsing Habits

    Practicing secure web browsing and device usage habits protects phishing traps and malware.

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    Browser Precautions

    • Install ad blockers – Browser ad block extensions filter out malicious ads used to spread phishing links and malware.
    • Disable auto form fill – Auto form fill allows scam sites to harvest your saved credentials if enabled.
    • Check for padlock icon – Only submit sensitive data on HTTPS secured sites marked by a padlock icon.
    • Clear cookies – Regularly clear cookies to remove any potentially stored by scam sites.
    • Watch for fake extensions – Avoid enabling unknown browser extensions that may be malware or spyware.

    General Computing Precautions

    • Install anti-virus software – Robust anti-virus software can detect and disable some phishing malware.
    • Disable macros – Email attachments can install malware via macros. Disable this feature.
    • Back up data – Maintain backups to recover from potential malware damage.
    • Use two-factor authentication – Adding a second login step prevents stolen passwords from granting account access.
    • Screen lock devices – Prevent unauthorized physical access to devices when not in use.

    How to Report Phishing Attacks

    When identified, phishing scams should be reported both internally and to the appropriate external organizations. Gather key details to include in your report:

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    Internal Reporting

    • Notify your organization’s IT security and leadership teams per incident response protocols.
    • For employee-targeted attacks, IT can scrutinize email headers for spoofed details and stay vigilant for similar scams.
    • For customer-targeted scams, marketing, PR and customer service teams can be alerted to reassure concerned customers and draft public-facing scam alerts.

    External Reporting

    • FTC – Report phishing emails mimicking government agencies or large brands to the FTC at
    • FBI IC3 – Suspected criminal phishing operations can be reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at
    • Brand impersonated – If phishers are posing as a specific brand, you can report directly to their customer service.
    • Domain registrar – Report fake websites spoofing real domains to the site’s domain registrar.
    • Email provider – Forward phishing emails to the “abuse” address of the email provider being impersonated.

    Implementing Organizational Anti-Phishing Controls

    Organizations should implement layered technical defenses and employee education to create a resilient anti-phishing strategy.

    Technical Safeguards

    • Email security filters – Services that scan incoming email for blacklisted URLs, spoofed domains, attachments and other indicators help stop phishing emails.
    • Web proxy filtering – Block access to known phishing sites, while allowing access to legitimate sites.
    • Endpoint detection – Anti-malware with heuristics can identify and isolate suspicious executables.
    • Access controls – Limit employee access to data to minimum needed reducing impact of stolen credentials.
    • Multi-factor authentication – Add an additional credential check like biometrics when users access sensitive systems.
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    Employee Training

    • Simulated phishing tests – Send fake phishing emails to test employee response and use as a training opportunity.
    • Phishing awareness training – Educate employees on phishing red flags through online courses and internal newsletters/posters.
    • Visible reporting channels – Provide easy ways to report suspected phishing internally like email reporting addresses.
    • Incident response plan – Document response plan for containment, notification and addressing any data loss.

    Protecting Yourself from Phishing Scams

    Individuals can also take ownership of phishing prevention by being cautious sharers of information and employing phishing countermeasures.

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    Personal Precautions

    • Avoid clicking unsolicited links/attachments – Be wary of any content you didn’t specifically request, even if sender appears known.
    • Verify requests for information – Phishers may spoof trusted brands. Verify unusual requests by contacting organization directly.
    • Use multifactor authentication – Reduce risk of stolen credentials by requiring codes from a separate device to log in.
    • Be stingy with info sharing – Limit sharing of personal details publicly or in response to requests until legitimacy is verified.
    • Update credentials regularly – If a password is compromised, regularly updating credentials limits window of account access.

    Phishing Prevention Tools

    • Browser extensions – Extensions can warn of phishy sites or block them entirely. Options include Web of Trust and Netcraft Extension.
    • Email filters – Services like SpamArrest can identify and block phishing emails through blacklist filters and heuristics.
    • Password managers – Generating and storing strong unique passwords for each account makes phished credentials less dangerous.
    • Antivirus/malware tools – Endpoint protection can detect and disable phishing-related malware including Trojans and spyware.
    • VPN connections – Using VPN encrypts traffic making it harder for phishers to eavesdrop on your browsing to obtain credentials.


    As phishing techniques grow more advanced, users must be hyper-aware to identify telltale signs of phishing scams across emails, websites, and phone communications. By combining employee education, technological safeguards, and secure browsing habits, individuals and organizations can develop multilayered defenses against this predominant cyber threat. With care and vigilance, it is possible to evade phishing traps and surf the web safely.