Oct 24 2023

Smishing vs. Phishing vs. Vishing: What's the Difference?

The classic email-based cyberattack and its modern variants remain significant threats in 2023. Here’s how to guard against them.
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Despite years of warnings about the danger they pose to organizations’ data, phishing attacks remain a major cybersecurity concern. According to Verizon’s 2023 Data Breach Investigations Report, phishing was seen in 36 percent of recorded breaches, up from 25 percent the previous year.

Artificial intelligence tools allow attackers to generate phishing campaigns on a huge scale, though those technologies can also be used to detect phishing attacks.

Phishing has long been understood as the sending of email that attempts to convince the recipient to do something that the attacker wants, such as to transfer money, send a password or provide other data, notes Jon France, CISO for (ISC)², a nonprofit cybersecurity association.

Phishing emails purport to be from legitimate-sounding sources and are used to either get information directly from the recipient or get them to click on a link or download an attachment that can then execute code for data exfiltration or other malicious purposes.

Phishing and its derivatives continue to be the most prevalent source of ransomware attacks noted by security company IDC’s research, according to Research Director Jennifer Glenn.

“The reason is simply that it is fairly easy for an attacker to execute,” Glenn says. “Contact information, such as email and phone numbers, are regularly provided — mostly willingly — by users to various organizations for marketing, registration for events, shipping and purchases, and even travel.” That data is sometimes sold but is also often stolen by malicious actors, who then turn around and use it for phishing attacks.

Phishing has morphed and is no longer confined to just email, as attackers now use voicemail (vishing) and SMS text messages (smishing) to lure would-be victims.

Click the banner to learn the signs of a phishing attack before it escalates.

What Are the Differences Between Phishing, Vishing and Smishing?

A longtime tactic of cyberattackers, phishing is built around deceiving the recipient into offering information or clicking on a malicious link.

Glenn notes that the rapid of adoption of generative AI “has helped attackers increase the frequency of the attacks and also helped create more legitimate-looking emails.”

“When you think back several years ago, most phishing emails were pretty easy to spot,” she says. “Often there was awkward wording, misspellings or just bizarre content. However, today’s phishing emails are much more polished, making malicious emails harder to identify, both for individuals and security tools.”

Phishing remains a problem, France says, because the cost for attackers is “superlow,” and they “only need to be successful a few times to make it worthwhile.”

For ordinary users, he says, phishing is generally “an annoyance or gets caught by mail programs, but it only takes an accidental click to expose confidential information and data.” Here is a quick breakdown of phishing and its variants, vishing and smishing.

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PHISHING: Phishing is a form of social engineering, and its attack vector is through email. “This attack involves the psychological compromise of a person that alters their behavior into taking an action or breaching confidentiality,” Verizon’s DBIR notes.

Phishing is used for data theft and is designed to give the attacker a foothold into an organization, Glenn says. “The targeted user may have data from their personal accounts exfiltrated, some of which could be personally identifiable information about the individual or any employee, partner or customer they interact with. Confidential data could be stolen from the targeted user.”

Additionally, phishing can be used to obtain credentials from users in order to “legitimately” access other information throughout the organization, Glenn says. “This poses significant risk, because at face value it can be challenging to recognize an attacker if they are using the credentials from a trusted source,” she adds.

Phishing is also used to execute ransomware attacks. According to IDC research, almost a third of reported ransomware attacks originate from phishing. “Not only is ransomware a significant business disruption, it may also be used as a distraction or mask for other nefarious activities, such as data exfiltration,” Glenn says.

Jennifer Glenn
…while familiarizing users with indicators to look for is important, it’s almost more important to help them practice good security behavior. This helps them build ‘muscle memory’ to respond appropriately to these emails.”

Jennifer Glenn Security Company Research Director, IDC

SPEAR PHISHING:, as defined by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, is a type of phishing campaign that “targets a specific person or group and often will include information known to be of interest to the target, such as current events or financial documents.” Like other social engineering attacks, spear phishing “takes advantage of our most basic human traits, such as a desire to be helpful, provide a positive response to those in authority, a desire to respond positively to someone who shares similar tastes or views, or simple curiosity about contemporary news and events.”

VISHING: Vishing is a type of phishing in which the attacker tries to gain information from the user through a phone call or voicemail. “Like phishing, the attacker will call under the guise of a legitimate business to get the user to take an action,” Glenn says.   

SMISHING: With smishing, another type of phishing, the attacker attempts to reach the user through SMS text messages, professing to be a legitimate contact and hoping the intended victim will click on a malicious link on his or her mobile device. 

How Can You Protect Your Organization from These Attacks?

The best way to prevent the risks from phishing, vishing and smishing is a combination of cybersecurity tools, education and practice to help users recognize and thwart these attempts, Glenn says.

Phishing is the easiest to protect against at the endpoint, France notes. Users are typically protected by either the mail server or phishing prevention software (including anti-virus, anti-malware and anti-spam tools). Spam and phishing filters can be “helpful at identifying unknown IP addresses as well as patterns in the text of the email, essentially helping to filter out a good portion of malicious emails,” Glenn says.

“These anti-phishing tools are able to identify anomalies such as unknown addresses, recognize context and tone, and uncover hidden malware in any attachments,” she adds. “However, tools like these are only likely to work on company-managed devices and email platforms and are not going to be effective on voicemail or SMS-based phishing.”

Indeed, France notes that vishing and smishing are “a little more complex, as companies don't typically control the communication medium, so good education is critical to raising awareness. The user must know what to look for or detect, and how to report the threat.”

Educating users about phishing is a multipronged effort, Glenn says. First, companies need to provide regular cybersecurity training that teaches users how to recognize phishing and vishing attempts by demonstrating anomalies or showing examples of suspicious-looking texts.

“Second, while familiarizing users with indicators to look for is important, it’s almost more important to help them practice good security behavior,” Glenn says, so they can put all that training to good use. “This helps them build ‘muscle memory’ to respond appropriately to these emails.”

Users should be advised to slow down a bit “to check for these indicators and think critically about the email, message or phone call they are getting to see if makes sense,” says Glenn.

The final part of education is building good cyber hygiene habits, Glenn says. This includes “helping users to think about how and where they are providing their contact information and how it may be used.”

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