There have recently been a significant number of articles in the media relating to what are called “Spear Phishing Attacks”.
Although directed, for the moment, mainly at larger organisations, they are causing a degree of concern throughout all business sectors and technical computer support personnel.
What are they and are you vulnerable?
Phishing – a recap
To begin with, there is nothing new in this approach which is used by various forms of hackers and crooks to gain access to your confidential information.
It basically involves putting something on a screen in front of you, perhaps an e-mail or a website screen, that appears to be one thing when it is actually something else. You trust the screen in front of you and therefore obligingly enter things like your ID and password or follow the links it contains.
In fact, you are not communicating with anything legitimate and the people you have provided your password and ID to will make use of them for their own various nefarious purposes.
Although this has been around for a long time, there has recently been a variation developed which has earned the title Spear Phishing.
What happens here is that you will receive an e-mail from a friend or organisation that appears to be extremely credible in terms of its origin.
It will seem to be so because the crooks of the world have realised just how much public domain information is now freely available online relating to individuals and their business connections. For example, in facilities such as FACEBOOK and LINKEDIN, it may be comparatively easy to look at public information pages that give at least some details relating to you but also numbers of your business and personal contacts.
So, it is comparatively easy to craft an e-mail to you that appears to be coming from someone you know and trust. As a general rule, that e-mail will also invite you to send a note or look at something online, courtesy of a provided link. When you follow the link, you’ll be asked to enter your Microsoft Outlook ID and password.
From that point onwards, the tale will follow a gloomy pathway of allowing outside people access to some of your most personal and private communications.
Can you stop it?
The bad news about this type of attack is that it cannot be stopped through technical means.
It can be difficult or impossible for software, anti-virus systems or even online helpdesk support services to spot that an e-mail is not from the originator it claims to be from.
So, the ultimate weapon against it is common sense and public awareness. If you receive an e-mail from someone you know, you should really look at it and ask yourself a few questions:
1. Is the person’s phraseology exactly as you would normally expect to see it?
2. Does it contain minor grammatical errors and glitches in the English language?
3. Is that e-mail out of context? For example, are they asking you to send something or look at something which you have already previously discussed with them?
4. Is it referring to a subject matter that isn’t one you would normally expect them to be raising in an e-mail?
Two final stages:
1. Is the link it contains showing up with an “HTTPS” prefix? If it isn’t, that can be a warning sign.
2. Don’t hesitate to send a separate e-mail to the originator (NOT simply hitting the ‘REPLY’ button to the e-mail you are in doubt about), asking them if they sent it.
The bottom line is simple – vigilance is required.