Email Security

    Smishing (SMS Phishing): Definition, Examples, and Ways to Prevent It

    How does smishing differ from conventional phishing attacks, and how can you prevent yourself from falling into the smishing trap?

    by Giulian Garruba

    Key Points

    • Smishing attacks focus on your smartphone or tablet in the same way that phishing targets your email.
    • SMS messaging is among the most popular forms of communication in the world, making it an attractive target for malicious attacks.
    • Masquerading as a trusted contact, website, or even state-controlled authority, smishing attacks compel you to share sensitive information willingly.

    The definition of smishing, despite its slightly humorous name, is clear when you consider a combination of two words most people will already be aware of — SMS and phishing. Unfortunately, it's nothing to laugh about, with the nefarious practice of smishing tricking countless users into sharing sensitive details with cyberattackers through SMS.

    Put simply, a smishing attack focuses on your smartphone or tablet in the same way that phishing targets your email. But how do these attacks happen, what makes them differ from conventional phishing attacks, and how can you prevent yourself from falling into the smishing trap?

    Here, we cover all the crucial facts you need to know about SMS phishing and how you can spot a malicious SMS before giving away sensitive information.

    What is Smishing? 

    Smishing generally works in one of two ways.

    • Sending an SMS to the recipient and asking for sensitive information.
    • Sending an SMS message to a recipient that contains a malicious link.

    Today, SMS messaging is among the most popular forms of communication in the world. The sheer number of messages sent means that cyberattackers have identified it as a target for malicious attacks on businesses and individuals. This means smishing is a highly lucrative avenue for cyberattackers to explore.

    Many people are already aware of email phishing, but with billions of smartphones and tablets in use, few are aware of the same threat smishing poses. This is often because SMS phishing is relatively new, and since we have come to trust the medium, we usually downplay any suspicions we might have over the damage a text message can create.

    Added to this is the fact that smishing messages are supposed to mimic the informal register we use within the medium, aiming to make you feel comfortable enough to click a link or share information.

    How Does Smishing Differ from Phishing Attacks? 

    The main difference between a smishing scam and a phishing attack is that they are implemented across different platforms. Phishing scams are always sent through email, which is usually more sophisticated, as they can include more misleading information and even malicious links in images or text.

    Smishing attacks, however, are no less dangerous, as they prey on our trust and familiarity with the platform and its instant response format to mislead us into sharing sensitive information without much thought.

    How a Smishing Attack Works 

    Masquerading as a trusted source, perhaps a contact, a website you regularly use, or even a state-controlled authority, you may be compelled to share sensitive information willingly when replying to a malicious SMS you receive. Often, there will be a time limit that urges you to respond immediately, and subsequent text messages may be received telling you time is running out to resolve the issue.

    This type of pressure often leads users to comply with minor demands, even when just a fragment of shared information may be enough for cyberattackers to gain entry to more critical devices, networks, and data. The cyberattacker may also attempt to foster greater trust in order for you to share more information as time progresses.

    Alternatively, you may be tricked into downloading malware onto your device that gathers data without you realizing. Finally, you could also be tricked into clicking a link that may ask for confidential information, which is then received by cybercriminals.

    In the end, all of these requests will appear in your SMS inbox as they would any other message, making it difficult to prepare for a smishing attack unless you are already aware of the threat.

    What Does a Smisherman Gain from a Smishing Attack?

    Like all malicious actors in the cybersecurity sector, Smishers look for vulnerabilities to exploit and gain personal data, either through simple yet fraudulent requests for information or by using malware installed on your device.

    This data can be used to steal your identity, gain password entry, compile profiles of user habits, and track user behavior. The bottom line, however, is that cyberattackers usually aim to steal money, whether that's by hacking into bank or credit card accounts or by holding critical data ransom.

    Signs You're Being Smished 

    Identifying the signs of a suspected attack can best be illustrated through a range of smishing examples.

    Requests to Share Credentials

    This is perhaps the most common type of smishing scam since it's usually the most believable to the end-user. For example, if you receive an SMS requesting personal data, such as usernames or passwords, that's an immediate red flag.

    Usually, a smishing attacker will pose as a bank or other authoritative source to seem more legitimate. They may even suggest that your account has been compromised and your details are required to stop any fraudulent activity. Unfortunately, the reality is that the SMS is the fraud.

    Similarly, supposedly trustworthy sources may ask you to follow a link to enter information or even call a phone number where a "customer service representative" will take your details. Either way, giving away critical information means success for the attacker.

    Requests to Download Software

    Another type of SMS phishing attack comes in the form of a request to download software, apps, or updates on your device. Once installed, malware works inside your existing operating system, controlling specific functions and collecting sensitive information and data.

    This type of smishing often leads to hijacked devices that cyberattackers can use to mine cryptocurrencies. While usually only a small part of your processing power may be engaged in this activity, it can cause devices to overload and render the device useless.

    Requests to Transfer Money

    Any SMS that asks for a money transfer should raise an immediate red flag. However, SMS phishing attacks have become increasingly sophisticated over the past decade, no longer relying on the Nigerian Prince promising millions but more often than not posing as someone you know.

    Cyberattackers may gather information from your social media on those closest to you, even appropriating their phone number, to present a crisis that only cash can solve. Even if a small amount is requested, the sheer number of smishing scams means the cyberattackers are likely to rake in plenty of money.

    Alternatively, smishing scammers may take on the persona of a charity worker, preying on people's goodwill to donate to non-existent charitable organizations.

    How to Prevent Smishing Attacks

    Smishing attackers use a broad range of methods to try and defraud you of money or data through an SMS, and the best form of prevention and protection is knowing what to look for. Generally, there will be a range of tell-tale signs that will alert you to a smishing attack. Remember: 

    • Don't be tempted to respond to time-sensitive demands from unknown sources.
    • Be wary of embedded links, particularly from non-contacts.
    • Double check the number you are receiving the message from and do not reply through SMS if it seems recognizable but you have suspicions.
    • Don't store card, bank details, or other critical information on your phone as malware may be able to access it.
    • Banks and other authorities will not ask you to confirm sensitive details over SMS. This is an immediate red flag.
    • Look for advanced tools that can detect suspicious activities on your devices.

    The Bottom Line: Smishing Attacks 

    As smartphone usage continues to grow, so too will the number and sophistication of smishing attacks. Therefore, vigilance and education on their development are key to avoiding this type of malicious activity. Additionally, always reporting SMS phishing attacks to your network provider may help prevent further attacks in the future. 

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