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There have been many research studies into the success rate of phishing; the statistics vary, but they all agree that it is the most utilized method to begin a cyber-attack against an organization. The latest research from Symantec shows that 96% of data breaches start with a phishing email; 1 in 4,200 emails during 2020 was phishing email. Further research from Verizon's 2021 Data Breach Investigation Report shows an upwards trend in phishing-related cyberattacks.

Phishing is successful and damaging, the results of which can be ransomware, a Business Email Compromise (BEC) scam, data breach, identity theft, and so on. Therefore, it is vital to understand the different types of phishing and the types of cyber-attacks associated. Both organizations and managed service providers (MSPs) can use this know-how to understand better how to prevent phishing attacks.

Did You Know?


cyber attacks begin with phishing

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estimated global cybercrime cost

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Six Phishing Attack Examples

Email Phishing

This is the most common form of phishing and one that most of us have come across. This type of phishing uses a spray gun approach to phishing. Cybercriminals indiscriminately send out phishing emails to any email address at their disposal. Scammers can quickly obtain thousands of email addresses by harvesting or from email addresses stolen in data breach incidents. Phishing emails contain links to a malicious website or an infected attachment.

What Happens in Email Phishing Campaigns?

Phishing emails are regular occurrences in both private and corporate email inboxes. These phishing emails often impersonate known commercial brands such as PayPal, Apple, and Facebook. These emails will use an individual's trust in that brand to manipulate their behavior. Phishing emails use tactics such as fear of hacking, urgency, or fear of missing out (FOMO) to encourage an email recipient to click on a malicious link or download an infected attachment.

Example of an AppleID phishing email
Example of an AppleID phishing email

Email phishing can lead to malware infection via an infected attachment in the email. If the recipient clicks on the attachment, the malware will look for vulnerabilities in software on the user's device and exploit these flaws to install the malicious software.

Email phishing can lead to stolen login credentials via an associated spoof website, a user taken to this site if they click on a link in the email or an attachment.

Phishing emails are increasingly challenging to detect as they are designed to evade end user detection. For example, infected attachments such as Word and Excel documents are now less common, and instead, fake image files (.jpeg and .png) are increasingly used to bring malware into people's inboxes.


Spear-phishing is a targeted form of email phishing. An Avanti report found some worrying results when investigating changes in phishing volumes. The researchers found that 85% of respondents spoke of "increasing sophistication" in phishing campaigns. Email phishing works, but spear-phishing takes phishing to new levels of success. Phishers take advantage of a lack of IT skills in an organization to exploit a stressed and tired workforce. Suppose a scammer can get the castle's keys (login credentials to corporate networks/apps); they can make a lot of money and cause damage. Spear-phishing targets those in an organization who have access to sensitive corporate resources, such as system administrators, C-level executives, and those working in accounts payable. Phishing emails work in the same way as email phishing, using psychological tactics to manipulate the behavior of their target.

What Happens in a Spear-Phishing Campaign?

A scammer will typically carry out reconnaissance research into a company. This will help them locate a likely target, such as a system administrator, who will have the privilege level to giving the scammer access to sensitive resources. For example, the scammer will compose a realistic-looking email that may spoof a corporate app like a Microsoft Office 365 request to download a vital company document. Suppose the target employee clicks on the malicious link and enters their login credentials or other revealing data into an associated spoof website. In that case, the scammer will use this to carry out the next stage in the attack, e.g., infect the network with ransomware.


When spear-phishing scammers go after C-level executives, the phishing attack is known as 'whaling,' aka, catching the big one, a 'whale'. In whaling attacks, scammers will carry out deep reconnaissance of a company, building up the profile of a C-Level executive, such as a CEO or CFO. The resultant spear-phishing email will use extreme tactics and behavioral motivators, such as fear, to manipulate the executive's behavior. For example, the phishing email may contain a threat that the company will be sued to encourage the executive to click on a link or open an infected attachment.

What Happens in a Whaling Attack?

Business Email Compromise (BEC) often has an element of whaling involved. Large and small firms are both at risk of whaling, as this NPR interview with a small business owner discussed: "Mark," an owner of a real-estate firm, told the show how he became a victim of a targeted account takeover attack. Whaling attacks typically try to trick an executive into transferring money or by encouraging a C-level executive to pass approval for the transfer of funds to an accounts payable employee.


Vishing is a form of phishing that uses a mobile phone to extract information from an individual or direct them to carry out a behavior that results in stolen data. Often vishing is used in combination with other phishing types, such as spear-phishing. Whaling, for example, may involve an initial phone call from a scammer to extract information that then leads to a whaling email. Vishing covers a spectrum of sophistication, from spray gun-type vishing messages that target the public to focused spear-vishing. The latter may work as part of a scam that steals large sums of money from a business. An excellent example of this was a 2018 scam that involved a phone call that used a fake voice to trick a CEO into transferring $240,000 to a fraudster.

What Happens in A Vishing Attack?

A recent FBI notice explains how scams may use multiple steps during a cyber-attack, some of these steps focusing on privileged users. These attacks often involve reconnaissance using vishing that then utilizes spoof web pages that are used to steal second-factor authentication codes, thereby bypassing traditional forms of protection.


Smishing is a form of phishing that uses mobile messaging channels, such as SMS text and WhatsApp, etc., to send out a phishing message. Like its email counterpart, the smishing message uses psychological tricks to manipulate targets.

What Happens in A Smishing Attack?

Like all social engineering attacks, smishing uses tricks to manipulate users into doing as the scammer wants. The fraudster uses tricks such as instilling fear into the recipient of a phishing message: financial smishing is a form of smishing where the message will look like it is from a well-known bank. The message will be composed to scare the recipient into thinking their bank account is compromised. The smishing message typically contains a URL that will take the person to a fake bank website where their actual bank login credentials will be stolen, and their bank account hacked.

Fake Websites

Many phishing campaigns are dependent on fake websites to carry out an attack, so it is essential to note the part that spoof websites play in email phishing attacks. Fake or spoof websites are typically sophisticated and realistic, using similar domain names to the brand they spoof. In addition, the sites usually use digital certificates to make the website look 'secure' - the certificates setting the site URL as beginning with an HTTPS (S for secure). The Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) identified 316,747 such websites in December 2021.

What Happens if a User Navigates to a Spoof Website?

The spoof website is often a companion to a phishing campaign. A malicious link in a phishing, spear-phishing, or smishing message, will take a recipient to the companion spoof website. The fake webpage usually reflects the brand that the phishing message spoofs, for example, a Microsoft Office 365 login page. Once the target has navigated to the spoof website, they are requested to enter their login credentials (or other personal details). Once submitted, the data is sent to the hacker behind the scam, who then uses them to log in to the actual site. 

Verizon's 2021 Data Breach Investigation Report shows an upwards trend in phishing-related cyberattacks.

Ways to Stop Phishing in all its Forms

Protection against phishing requires a layered approach to anti-phishing protection; by using multiple layers of protection, an organization is more likely to stop the threat before it becomes an incident:

Educate Your Employees

This is a fundamental step in phishing prevention. Security awareness training, augmented with simulated phishing exercises, will make employees aware of the various phishing attack methods. 

Choose a Phishing Prevention Platform that is Easily Deployed and Maintained

Effective phishing prevention needs to be scalable across multiple types of devices. The email and content filters must be able to be easily configured and updated from a central console. A cloud-based system provides central management and is suited to deployment and management from a managed service provider (MSP)

Susan Morrow Bio

Susan Morrow Bio


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