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Smishing vs Phishing: Differences Between Two Cyber Threats

As the world becomes interconnected and digital, cybercriminals see the opportunity to take advantage of our carelessness.

Two of the most insidious forms of cyberattacks that target individuals and organizations alike are smishing and phishing. These devious techniques aim to exploit human psychology and lure victims into divulging sensitive information, often with devastating consequences.

What is Phishing?

Phishing is a type of social engineering cyber attack that relies on deceit and manipulation to extract personal, financial, or sensitive information from unsuspecting victims. The term “phishing” is a play on the word “fishing,” as cybercriminals cast their deceptive “bait” to hook victims.

Imagine receiving an email from your bank, urging you to click on a link to verify your bank account details due to a security breach. The email is impeccably crafted, complete with the bank’s logo, creating a convincing trap. However, if you examine the email address closely, you may notice subtle abnormalities, such as a misspelled domain name or grammatical mistakes.

Phishing attacks often prey on human psychology, exploiting emotions like fear, curiosity, or a sense of urgency to prompt hasty actions. 

Phishing attacks can take various forms, from emails and text messages to fake websites and phone calls. One very notorious form of phishing is smishing.

What is Smishing?

Just as phishing attempts to deceive and trick victims through email, smishing manipulates and tricks individuals through text messages on their trusted mobile devices.

Picture this, you receive a text message on your smartphone, seemingly from a well-known delivery service. The message states that a package is en route to your address, but it requires urgent verification due to an address mismatch. To resolve the issue, you’re prompted to click on the link provided.

Smishing attacks leverage the trust individuals have in text messages and the sense of urgency that often accompanies them.

It’s important to note that smishing and vishing attacks don’t exclusively rely on text messages; they can also manifest through messaging apps, such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. The tactics may vary, but the goal remains the same: to manipulate and cultivate sensitive information.

Now that we have a clearer understanding of both phishing and smishing, let’s compare their methods.

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Comparison table: How do Smishing and Phishing attacks work?

To grasp the distinctions between smishing scams and phishing attacks, let’s break down them down step by step. 

Steps of AttackPhishing attackSmishing attack
Delivery channelPrimarily through email messages, but can also involve websites, phone calls, or social media.Via text messages (SMS) or messaging apps like WhatsApp, often utilizing phone numbers.
Initial contactTypically initiated via an email that appears to be from a reputable source, such as a bank, government agency, or well-known brand.Commences with a text message that seems urgent or important, often impersonating trusted entities like delivery services, banks, or government agencies.
Deceptive contentCrafted emails with enticing subject lines and official-looking logos to create an illusion of legitimacy. May contain fraudulent messages with malicious links or attachments.Text messages designed to invoke a sense of urgency or curiosity, often including a link to a fraudulent website or a phone number to call.
Social engineeringRelies on social engineering tactics, like creating a false sense of urgency, fear of consequences, or the promise of rewards, to prompt victims to take immediate action.Exploits the same techniques but within the constraints of text messaging, where conciseness is crucial to maintain the victim’s attention.
Deceptive toolLinks that redirect to a malicious website.Infected attachments.Links that redirect to a malicious website.A phone number to call
Next stepOnce on the fraudulent website, victims are prompted to enter personal, financial, or login information.Similar
Response timePhishing emails can sit in victims’ inboxes for some time before they take action or report them.Smishing messages often elicit a more immediate response due to the perceived urgency of text messages.
Channel vulnerabilitiesExploit email spam filters weaknesses, to reach their targets.Text messages are less likely to be spam filtered, making it easier for smishing attacks to reach victims.
Ease of detectionPhishing emails can be easily detected by email filters or by being spotted with irregularities in the sender’s personal details or web addresses.Smishing attacks can be challenging to detect, as the deceptive content is condensed without much method to verify the message’s legitimacy.
MitigationEmail filteringUser educationTwo-factor authentication (2FA) for online accounts.Exercise caution with text messages.Refrain from clicking links or providing personal information impulsively.

Consequences of falling victim to Smishing and Phishing

These attacks not only compromise personal and financial information but also pose significant risks to victims’ well-being and security.

Financial losses:

Both smishing and phishing attacks can lead to substantial financial losses. Victims may find their bank accounts emptied, credit cards maxed out, or fraudulent transactions in their name. Recovering lost funds can be a lengthy and challenging process.

Compromised personal information:

Smishing and phishing attacks often result in the exposure of sensitive personal information, such as social security numbers, addresses, and contact details. This information can be sold on the dark web or used for other identity fraud and theft, putting victims at risk for years to come.

Reputation damage:

Falling victim to these attacks can damage an individual’s or organization’s reputation. If personal information is used to engage in illegal activities, it may tarnish the victim’s name and credibility. Companies may lose the trust of their customers if sensitive client data is compromised.

Legal consequences for perpetrators:

Both smishing and phishing are illegal activities. When cybercriminals are apprehended, they can face severe legal repercussions, including fines and imprisonment. However, tracking down and prosecuting these criminals can be challenging due to the anonymous nature of online attacks.

Identity theft:

Victims of these cyber attacks are at risk of identity theft, which can lead to fraudulent accounts, loans, or even criminal activities conducted in their name. Clearing one’s name and credit history after identity theft can be a time-consuming and emotionally taxing ordeal.

Emotional distress:

Falling victim to a smishing or phishing attack can lead to significant emotional distress. Feelings of violation, vulnerability, and anxiety often accompany the realization that one’s personal information has been compromised.

Defending against Smishing and Phishing in the remote work era

As remote work becomes the norm, these cyberattacks loom larger than ever, targeting both individuals and organizations.

Vigilance is your best defense. Verify unsolicited messages, and exercise caution when sharing sensitive information. Cybersecurity education and proactive measures, such as strong authentication and regular updates, bolster your defenses against these cunning adversaries.

By staying informed, practicing cybersecurity best practices, and fostering a culture of vigilance, we can navigate the digital world with greater resilience, ensuring our personal and professional information remains secure.

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