Tessian’s mission is to secure the human layer by empowering people to do their best work, without security getting in their way.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the terms “smishing” and “vishing,” you may have been targeted by these attacks. This article will:
Smishing and vishing are two types of phishing attacks, sometimes called “social engineering attacks.” While 96% of phishing attacks arrive via email, hackers can also use social media channels. Regardless of how the attack is delivered, the message will appear to come from a trusted sender and may ask the recipient to:
All these hallmarks of phishing can also be present in smishing and vishing attacks.
Smishing — or “SMS phishing” — is phishing via SMS (text messages). The victim of a smishing attack receives a text message, supposedly from a trusted source, that aims to solicit their personal information.
These messages often contain a link (generally a shortened URL) and, like other phishing attacks, they’ll encourage the recipient to take some “urgent” action, for example:
Just like phishing via email, the rates of smishing continue to rise year-on-year. According to Consumer Reports, the Federal Trade Commission (FCC) received 93,331 complaints about spam or fraudulent text messages in 2018 — an increase of 30% from 2017.
Here’s an example of a smishing message:
The message above appears to be from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and invites the recipient to visit a link. Note that the link appears to lead to a legitimate website — gov.uk is a UK government-owned domain.
The use of a legitimate-looking URL is an excellent example of the increasingly sophisticated methods that smishing attackers use to trick unsuspecting people into falling for their scams.
As we’ve said, cybercriminals are using increasingly sophisticated methods to make their messages as believable as possible. That’s why many thousands of people fall for smishing scams every year.
In fact, according to a study carried out by Lloyds TSB, participants were shown 20 emails and texts, half of which were inauthentic. Only 18% of participants correctly identified all of the fakes. So, what should you look for?
Just like a phishing attack via email, a smishing message will generally:
Other clues that a message might be from a hacker include the phone number it comes from (large institutions like banks will generally send text messages from short-code numbers, while smishing texts often come from “regular” 11-digit mobile numbers) and may contain typos.
If you’re looking for more examples of phishing attacks (which might help you spot attacks delivered via text message) check out these articles:
Vishing — or “voice phishing” — is phishing via phone call. Vishing scams commonly use Voice over IP (VoIP) technology.
Like targets of other types of phishing attacks, the victim of a vishing attack will receive a phone call (or a voicemail) from a scammer, pretending to be a trusted person who’s attempting to elicit personal information such as credit card or login details.
So, how do hackers pull this off? They use a range of advanced techniques, including:
A vishing scam often starts with an automated message, telling the recipient that they are the victim of identity fraud. The message requests that the recipient calls a specific number. When doing so, they are asked to disclose personal information. Hackers then may use the information themselves to gain access to other accounts or sell the information on the Dark Web.
On August 20, 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a joint statement warning businesses about an ongoing vishing campaign.
The agencies warn that cybercriminals have been exploiting remote-working arrangements throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The scam involves spoofing login pages for corporate Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), so as to steal employees’ credentials. These credentials can be used to obtain additional personal information about the employee.
The attackers then use unattributed VoIP numbers to call employees on their personal mobile phones. The attackers pose as IT helpdesk agents, and use a fake verification process using stolen credentials to earn the employee’s trust.
The FBI and CISA recommend several steps to help avoid falling victim to this scam, including restricting VPN connections to managed devices, improving 2-Step Authentication processes, and using an authentication process for employee-to-employee phone communications.
Again, just like phishing via email and smishing, the rates of vishing attacks are continually rising. According to one report, 49% of organizations surveyed were victims of a vishing attack in 2018.
Vishing made headlines most recently in July 2020 after the Twitter scam. After a vishing attack, high-profile users had their accounts hacked, and sent out tweets encouraging their followers to donate Bitcoin to a specific cryptocurrency wallet, supposedly in the name of charitable giving or COVID-19 relief.
This vishing attack involved Twitter employees being manipulated, via phone, into providing access to internal tools that allowed the attackers to gain control over Twitter accounts, including those of Bill Gates, Joe Biden, and Kanye West.
This is an example of spear phishing, conducted using vishing as an entry-point. It’s believed that the perpetrators earned at least $100,000 in Bitcoin before Twitter could contain the attack.
You can read more cybersecurity headlines from the last month here.
Vishing attacks share many of the same hallmarks as smishing attacks. In addition to these indicators, we can categorize vishing attacks according to the person the attacker is impersonating:
The key to preventing smishing and vishing attacks is security training.
While individuals can find resources online, employers should be providing all employees with IT security training. It’s actually a requirement of data security laws, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the New York SHIELD Act. You can read more about how compliance standards affect cybersecurity on our compliance hub.
Training can help ensure all employees are familiar with the common signs of smishing and vishing attacks which could reduce the possibility that they will fall victim to such an attack.
But, what do you do if you receive a suspicious message? The first rule is: don’t respond.
If you receive a text requesting that you follow a link, or a phone message requesting that you call a number or divulge personal information — ignore it, at least until you’ve confirmed whether or not it’s legitimate. The message itself can’t hurt them, but acting on it can.
If the message appears to be from a trusted institution, search for their phone number and call the institution directly. For example, if a message appears to be from your phone provider, search for your phone provider’s customer service number and discuss the request directly with the operator.
If you receive a vishing or smishing message at work or on a work device, make sure you report it to your IT or security team. If you’re on a personal device, you should report significant smishing and vishing attacks to the relevant authorities in your country, such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
For more tips on how to identify and prevent phishing attacks, including vishing and smishing, follow Tessian on LinkedIn or subscribe to our monthly newsletter.