This blog will cover everything you need to know about phishing links, including how they’re created, distributed, and used. Importantly, we’ll provide guidance on what you can do to spot phishing links and what you should do if you fall victim to one.
Phishing links are malicious URLs designed to appear as legitimate websites or services. Cybercriminals craft these links to mimic the look and feel of well-known companies, institutions, or even personal friends and family.
These links often arrive via email, instant messages, or even through social media platforms, cleverly engineered to catch victims off guard and trick them into clicking.
How Is A Phishing Link Sent?
Phishing links can be distributed through any means of digital and even physical communication (e.g., a QR code printed and taped to a power pole). With this in mind, the most common distribution methods are Email, SMS, Social Media, and Instant Messaging Applications.
Email: The classic vector, phishing emails masquerade as communications from well-known companies or institutions, often using branding, logos, and language that appear genuine. These emails might prompt you to update your account information or warn of suspicious activity, leading victims to a malicious website.
SMS: Phishing through SMS messages, known as smishing, is becoming increasingly common. These messages typically use spoofed Sender IDs and Sender Names that appear to be from well-known companies or institutions.
Social Media: Cybercriminals exploit social media platforms to distribute phishing links. These can be masked as intriguing articles, friend requests, or messages from known contacts whose accounts have been compromised.
Instant Messaging Applications: Applications like WhatsApp or Telegram can be used to send phishing links, often from hijacked accounts or group chats, making them seem credible.
What Happens When You Click A Phishing Link?
When a phishing link is clicked, it sets in motion a series of events that can compromise your personal, financial, or even physical security. The following events underscore the significant risks of clicking on unknown or unsolicited links.
1. Malware Can Be Installed
Some phishing links lead to websites that trigger an automatic download of malicious software (i.e., malware). If executed, this malware can perform a variety of different actions, such as data theft or hijacking a victim's online identity. The implications of malware are severe and cannot be understated.
2. Credentials Can Be Stolen
More often than not, phishing links lead to phishing websites designed to harvest credentials. These websites are typically superficial and consist of a login screen cloned and designed to masquerade as the login page of a legitimate service.
Once an attacker captures a victim's credentials, they can immediately begin accessing the account of the service that's been cloned. Shortly after, attackers will also perform credential shuffling attacks on other services the victim may be using.
3. Browser Vulnerabilities Can Be Exploited
Phishing links can lead unsuspecting victims to websites that are specifically engineered to exploit vulnerabilities in web browsers. These malicious sites take advantage of security flaws within a victim's browser, ranging from zero-day vulnerabilities to known issues in outdated browser versions.
The abuse of zero-day vulnerabilities is rare and is typically used by advanced cyber attackers such as nation-states in specialized cases. In cases involving existing vulnerabilities, attackers count on users having outdated browsers that haven’t been updated with the latest security patches. When a user clicks on a phishing link and lands on a malicious website, the site can automatically execute code that exploits these known vulnerabilities to deploy malware and take control of the victim's computer.
4. IP Address Information Can Be Exposed
When a victim clicks on a phishing link, they are directed to an attacker-controlled server that can capture any connecting victim's IP address. On the surface, this may not seem that important, but IP addresses can reveal a considerable amount of information about a victim, which cybercriminals can exploit in various ways.
Attackers can use an exposed IP address to;
Engage in port scanning activities to detect vulnerabilities in the victim's network.
Determine the geographic location of an individual, potentially compromising their physical security or privacy. Knowing the geolocation can also aid cybercriminals in crafting more targeted and believable phishing attacks.
Identify the Internet Service Provider (ISP) the victim uses for internet connectivity. Once identified, attackers can use other information known about the victim to attempt to socially engineer the ISP and compromise the victim's account with them.
5. Malicious OAuth Applications Can Be Authorized
Phishing links are increasingly used to facilitate the authorization of malicious OAuth applications, mainly targeting platforms like Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace.
These attacks work by redirecting victims to a seemingly legitimate OAuth application consent page. These consent pages are hosted on a legitimate domain, such as one provided by Microsoft, but an attacker controls the application. Once authorized, the attacker can access restricted APIs, providing access to the victim's account.
How Can You Identify A Phishing Link?
Identifying a phishing link often involves scrutinizing the URL and using various tools and techniques to verify the authenticity of the domain.
Understand The Components Of A URL
A URL can consist of 6 distinct components. The most important component for detecting a phishing link is the domain name. The reason for this is that domain names are tightly controlled and are considered to be the primary identifier for a business or institution on the internet. Cyber attackers often abuse misconceptions about the role of other URL components to obscure the actual destination and authenticity of a URL.
Let's explore the components that comprise a URL in more detail:
Scheme: This hypertext transfer protocol is used to establish client-to-server communication and is commonly abbreviated to HTTP or HTTPS. HTTPS represents the secure variant that encrypts end-to-end communication. Cyber attackers will commonly encrypt connections to phishing websites to add an additional layer of authenticity.
Subdomain: This is located before the domain name portion of a URL. Cyber attackers will commonly incorporate sub-domains that look like legitimate domain names to obfuscate the actual domain name in use and trick unsuspecting victims.
Domain Name: The core of the URL. This should match the expected domain of the legitimate website. Cyber attackers often use slight misspellings or extra words to create domains that look similar to genuine ones.
Top-Level Domain (TLD): This is the extension directly after a domain name (e.g., .com, .org, .net, etc.). Phishing links may use less common TLDs to create seemingly valid URLs that use legitimate domain names.
Path: The part of the URL following the TLD that begins with a forward slash and may use multiple forward slashes to denote different pages or sections of a website.
Parameters: Starting with a question mark, these provide additional information to the server but can be manipulated in phishing attempts to add legitimacy or obscure the true destination that a phishing URL may lead to.
Verify A Domain Names Authenticity
To verify the authenticity of a domain, you should:
Scrutinize the Domain Name: Look closely for subtle misspellings, extra letters, or hyphens. Compare it with the known legitimate domain name of the organization.
Search for the Website via Search Engines: If you're unsure about the domain name an organization uses, use search engines such as Google or Bing to find the organization's website through a search against the organization's name (making sure to avoid advertised search results).
Use Domain Verification Tools: WHOIS database lookups such as those provided by GoDaddy (or numerous others) can provide information about the domain, including the owner and how long ago it was registered. Short-term or recently registered domains can be red flags.
Be Wary of Shortened URLs: Use URL expander tools or browser extensions to view the full destination URL. These tools work by you providing the shortened URL and the tool seamlessly outputting the destination URL. There are numerous tools available that can be found through Google search or on browser app stores.
Use Browser Security Tools: Many browsers have built-in security features that alert you to suspected phishing sites. For Google Chrome, this comes in the form of Google Safe Browsing, which will present users with a red screen if Google has previously seen the website serving malware, unwanted software, or conducting social engineering attacks such as phishing. Similar tools are available for Microsoft Edge and Mozilla Firefox.
If you click on a phishing link, you must act quickly and carefully to minimize potential damage. To help with this, we've detailed a plan of action:
Disconnect from the Internet: This can prevent further data transmission to the attacker. To do this, disconnect from Wi-Fi, turn your phone on airplane mode, or unplug your Ethernet cable.
Determine the Nature of the Link: Reflect on what happened when you clicked the link. Did you download a file, enter login credentials, or just open a webpage?
If You Entered Login Credentials
Change Passwords: Change your passwords immediately and from a different, secure device. Prioritize accounts that share the same credentials.
Enable Multi-Factor Authentication: As an additional precaution, enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) on your accounts if it’s not already in place.
If You Downloaded a File
Delete the File: Without opening it, delete the file. Empty your trash or recycle bin to ensure it's fully removed.
Run an Antivirus Scan: Use an antivirus program to scan your device. This helps identify and remove any malware that might have been installed.
If You Suspect Money Fraud
Contact Your Financial Institutions: If you suspect that financial information was compromised, contact your bank or credit card company immediately to inform them of potential fraud and that you'd like to change your credit and debit cards.
Monitor Your Accounts: Keep an eye on your financial statements for any unauthorized transactions. Additionally, monitor notifications from your bank for indications of unauthorized account access.
If You Suspect Identity Theft
Initiate A Credit Freeze: Consider placing a freeze on your credit reports to prevent new accounts from being opened in your name.
Alert Authorities: If you believe you're a victim of identity theft, file a report with your local or national cybercrime authority.
Best Practice Follow-Up Actions
Update Your Software: Ensure that all your software, especially security software, is up to date to protect against any known vulnerabilities.
Educate Yourself: Learn more about phishing and how to recognize it. Understanding what to watch for can prevent future incidents.
Backup Your Data: Regularly back up your data. You won't lose important information if your computer or mobile phone becomes compromised.
Report the Phishing Attempt: Report the phishing attempt to the relevant authorities. In the U.S., for example, you can report it to the FTC, FBI, or CISA. If suitable, inform the organization that was impersonated in the phishing attempt.
If In Doubt, Seek Professional Help
Seek IT Support: If you’re unsure about the extent of the breach, especially in a corporate environment, seek professional IT support.
Legal Consultation: In cases of significant data or financial loss, consult with a lawyer to understand your rights and the actions you can take.
Navigating the modern digital world requires vigilance and up-to-date knowledge of how to look out for scams. By understanding what phishing links are and the potential consequences of interacting with them, you can significantly reduce your risk of becoming a victim.
Remember, when in doubt, don't click — taking a moment to verify can save you from a world of trouble. Stay informed, stay skeptical, and keep your digital identity secure.