SecurityThreats

What Is Smishing?

Smishing is a spear phishing cyber security attack using mobile text messages. It is also known as SMS phishing. Simply put, it is a phishing variant that targets mobile users to cough up sensitive data or confidential information to the attacker.

SMS phishing can also make use of fraudulent websites for malware. Smishing is launched through several mobile platforms, including non-SMS channels. These channels include data-based mobile messaging apps.

What Is Smishing?

The definition of smishing is based on the term derived from SMS (Short Message Service)/texting and phishing. It is a social engineering tactic utilized by hackers that exploit human trust instead of technical exploitation.

When cybercriminals phish for information, they use fraudulent emails or text messages that coax a user into clicking a malicious link or attachment. Smishing does the same but uses a text message instead of an email.

Cybercriminals use these techniques to steal personal details, making it easier to commit cybercrime and other fraud. This may also often involve stealing personal savings or company money.

How Are Smishing Attacks Launched?

Now that we have answered the first question: ‘What is Smishing?’, it is time to look at how smishing attacks are launched. Cybercriminals make use of either one of the two methods below to perform data/identity theft:

Malicious Websites

Smishing messages may be embedded with malicious links that lead the user to a fraudulent/fake website. This fake site often requires customers to type in sensitive information. Such websites are often custom-made by cybercriminals and are made to mimic reputable ones. This makes them seem legitimate and makes it easier for hackers to steal data.

Malware

Smishing messages are often sent with URL links that trick users into downloading malware. SMS malware often masquerades as a legitimate application, so the user trusts it enough to type in confidential data. This is then sent to cybercriminals who misuse this data for malicious gains.

  • Smishing messages often pretend to be from a financial institution such as a bank. They pretend to ask for an account number, ATM number, or other financial data. Giving these up means you gave thieves the key to your funds or bank balance.
  • BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is a trend that has led to an increased number of individuals bringing their smartphones to work. Remote jobs and the increase in mobile device usage for jobs have increased hacker interest.
  • Smishing attacks have become more common and have emerged as a huge business and consumer threat. Smishing has become the top form of a malicious text message.

How Do Smishing Attacks Work?

Cybercrime aimed at mobile devices is rising due to the increased use of mobile phones. Apart from texting, some other factors make smishing attacks quite threatening. Fraud and deception are the major components of any SMS phishing attack.

The attacker pretends to be someone you trust to coax the user into fulfilling their requests. Smishing attacks use social engineering principles to fool and trick users. The main factors that drive this are:

Context

Using a situation relevant to a victim allows the attacker to form a great disguise. Messages appear to be personalized, which removes suspicion and builds trust. The victim is less likely to treat such texts as spam.

Emotion

Raising a victim’s emotions to higher levels causes an override of critical and logical thinking. Attackers make use of this technique to cause victims to take rapid action.

Trust

Pretending to be a legitimate organization, business, or individual allows cybercriminals to build trust. The victim is less skeptical of such text messages. A personal communication channel lowers suspicion and makes the victim feel less threatened. Attackers often type up messages that lead a victim into taking strong actions.

Smishing Attack Functioning

The attackers aim to make recipients click on URL links in a text message. These links redirect the user to a phishing tool where private information is requested. Phishing tools such as apps or websites often pretend to be false identities.

Victims or targets are also often selected and picked out. These may be targeted towards a regional location, a specific company, or employees of a particular organization. Other targets include university students, mobile network subscribers, or residents of a specific area.

Attackers usually disguise themselves in coordination with the institution they wish to pretend to be and the targets they have picked. These masks allow cybercriminals to perform identity theft or steal personal or financial information.

Attackers can use spoofing attacks to hide their true phone numbers behind a decoy. Cheap, disposable, or prepaid phones, known as burner phones, are also often used to launch attacks. Other options include using email-to-text services to hide their identity and phone numbers.

Steps Used By Malicious Actors

Attackers carry out a smishing attack in the following steps:

  1. The fraudulent message is first distributed to targets or baits.
  2. Information is compromised through deception and social engineering tactics.
  3. The goal is achieved by executing the desired theft using stolen data.

A smishing attack is successful if private information is successfully used to steal funds or perform other thefts. Examples of theft include stealing bank funds, using money from credit cards, leaking/selling private data, etc.

How Do Smishing Attacks Spread?

Smishing messages are delivered to targets via a non-messaging app or traditional text messaging. SMS phishing attacks usually spread unnoticed and uninterrupted as they are deceptive. User trust and false confidence further provide this leverage and makes targets think such messages are safe.

Most individuals have some awareness of email fraud and can differentiate between spam and genuine emails. Email spam scams are easier to identify due to the exclusion of a personal message or statement.

However, individuals tend to let their guard down when using their smartphones. This is also due to the fact that most think a smartphone is safer and has greater security as compared to a computer. However, smartphone security does have its limitations and may not always be sufficient to ward off smishing attacks.

A lapse in judgment, along with trust, makes such attacks successful. Smishing can be used to attack any mobile device with a text messaging function. Both Android and iOS devices are targets for hackers.

Apple’s iOS mobile technology has a reputation for safety and security. However, no mobile device is completely safe from phishing-style attacks that use social engineering strategies and deception. A false security sense is often the leading cause of a user coming under an attack.

Another major cause of smishing attacks that have become so prevalent and successful is the fact that people use mobile devices on the go or when in a hurry. Irrational thinking or being distracted means the victim’s guard is down, which provides an opportunity for cybercriminals to steal banking information, card details, and other sensitive data.

What Are The Different Types Of Smishing Attacks?

All smishing attacks make use of similar strategies even though the presentation of each may vary significantly. Attackers make use of an array of identities and premises to keep attacks fresh and different.

Constant revamping of smishing attacks makes it difficult to define exact types. However, some basic characteristics can be identified based on established scam practices. These can help anyone identify a smishing attack before it is launched. Let us look at these below:

Financial Services Smishing

Financial smishing attacks masquerade as notifications from a financial institution. Nearly all individuals use cards and banks, so almost all are potential victims susceptible to institution-based and generic messages.

Attackers send messages pretending to be a bank or some other financial institution. They do this to commit financial fraud and steal funds and banking credentials. Some common scams include urgent requests to unlock your account, being asked to verify malicious account activity, compromise of bank account/card details, etc.

COVID-19 Smishing

This scam emerged after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. These scams are used to send messages based on legitimate government aid programs, financial institutions, or healthcare for recovery from the pandemic. Attackers exploited victims using these messages to manipulate the target’s finances and health. Some warning signs of this type of attack include:

  • Stimulus checks or tax-based financial relief.
  • Public health and safety updates.
  • Requests to fill out a form to complete the U.S. consensus.
  • Contact tracing and requests for the card number, social security pin, etc.

Invoice/Order Confirmation Smishing

This type of scam is used to send a fake confirmation message to a mobile device user regarding a service. This may include a billing invoice or a recent purchase. Links are sent in a message that masquerades as follow-ups that ask for immediate action to avoid added charges or simply arouse curiosity. The absence of a business name or continuous messages asking for confirmation is evidence of this scam.

Gift Smishing

Gift smishing scams offer free products or services pretending to offer from a known or reputable business. These may include shopping rewards, giveaway contests, or other free offers. Excited users often tend to believe such messages, which leads them to take action quicker. Common signs include free gift cards, exclusive selections, and limited-time offers.

Customer Support Smishing

These attacks masquerade as customer support agents or customer care representatives from a known, trusted, or reputable company. They pretend to be helping you solve an issue and often masquerade as eCommerce/high-tech companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google.

Attackers will usually claim that there is an error on your account or there are an issue and list steps you can follow to resolve this issue. These steps may lead you to a fraudulent login page or ask the user to perform a real account recovery. When the user offers the code for recovery, they use it as a strategy to reset the account password.

Some signs of this attack scheme include issues with account access, billing, unusual account activity messages, or resolving a recent customer complaint.

How To Prevent A Smishing Attack?

It is easy to protect yourself against smishing attacks since these can only cause damage to a target if they take the bait. Text messages are a legit way for many institutions and retailers to reach out to their customers. Therefore, ignoring all text messages is not a good idea.

The following can be kept in mind to protect yourself and guarantee safety instead:

  • Do not reply and respond if you are not sure. Make sure never to reply to messages that ask you to text ‘stop’ to unsubscribe, as these may be aimed at checking active phone numbers.
  • Refusing to engage prevents an attacker from leveraging her emotions to launch an attack. Always slow down and analyze the message before deciding whether or not to respond.
  • Urgent account updates, limited-time offers, or other urgent prompts must be handled smartly. Call the institution or bank directly to verify if they sent a text if you are confused. Never provide personal data without confirmation.
  • Legitimate institutions never ask for login updates or account information via text messages. Verify all urgent notices and online accounts through an official helpline.
  • Do not click on links and contact information in messages that seem sketchy. Always make use of official channels to contact an institution.
  • Always check phone numbers before responding. Odd-looking numbers, such as four-digit ones, indicate the use of an email-to-text service.
  • Never store card information on your phone, and keep digital wallets secure with MFA (Multi-Factor Authentication) or 2FA (Two-Factor authentication). 2FA makes use of a text message code for verification.
  • You can also make use of stronger MFA variants like Google Authenticator. Also, never give your password or account recovery codes to anyone. It is also important to type these in official websites and apps only.
  • Download and install anti-malware software to protect against malicious apps, SMS phishing links, and SMS phishing attempts.

What To Do If You Become A Victim Of A Smishing Attempt?

  • Report the cybercrime to relevant authorities with accurate details.
  • Freeze your card and block all online transactions.
  • Change all PINS and passwords.
  • Monitor all online accounts to detect strange activity or weird login locations.

Conclusion

Prevention is better than cure. Remember that nothing can go wrong if you do not respond to a malicious message. SMS phishing attacks can do nothing if you do receive them but fail to fall bait. Even if you fall victim, taking the above measures is your best bet against preventing major financial and other losses.

Derik Belair

As President and CEO, Derik leads the vision, strategy and growth of Augmentt. Prior to founding Augmentt, Derik was the Vice President at SolarWinds, leading the digital marketing strategy for SolarWinds’ Cloud division. Derik has been working in the channel for over 20 years, starting his career as a channel sales rep at Corel Corp. and eventually becoming the first employee at N-able Technologies in April of 2000.

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