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Spoofing vs. Phishing: Uncovering the Difference

6 minute read

All too often, we’ve seen the terms “spoofing” vs. “phishing” used interchangeably. Once each is defined and understood a bit more clearly, it is easy to see how different these tactics are at their core. Boiled down: phishing aims to take hold of personal information by convincing the user to provide it directly; spoofing aims to steal or disguise an identity so malicious activity can ensue. 

Both employ a level of disguise and misrepresentation, so it is easy to see why they are so closely paired. When both types of attacks work together in tandem, they provide a convincing and seamless double-threat. It’s critical for organizations (big or small, from employees to executives) to know the difference so either attack can be spotted quickly and mitigated from the beginning.

Let’s take a closer look at spoofing vs. phishing, how they differ, and how you can mitigate the unique risks each poses.

What is Phishing? 

“Phishing: The delivery of a “lure” to a potential victim by pretending to be some trustworthy person or organization in order to trick the victim into revealing sensitive information.” (Courtesy of The Cyberwire Glossary)

Phishing is a form of social engineering centered around convincing you to share sensitive information. A cyber criminal’s phishing attempt is all about obtaining your personal information by posing as a trusted source. The sensitive information they are after runs the gamut; this includes bank account details, social security numbers, financial information, and login credentials. Merely sending an email crafted to look like the legitimate, trusted source will do the trick to kick off a phishing attack. Once a cyber criminal has gained your trust, the rest comes easy. Malicious links, malware-infested attachments, and phony login forms are just a click away. 

Spoofing vs. phishing can seem synonymous when they play hand-in-hand to create an even more legitimate-looking type of attack. A cyber criminal can layer in phone number or email spoofing to create a perfectly disguised phishing attempt, and this is just one example. The more believable, the better the chances are their target will follow through with the malicious call to action. There are many types of techniques employed in a phishing attack; let’s review the top three:

  • Email Phishing: Sending a message masked as the legitimate source is a cyber criminal’s go-to tactic. When it comes to the type of attack aimed at stealing sensitive information, email phishing is so effective it is often behind the most prominent cyber attacks you’ve seen on the news. There are a few sure-fire ways of spotting a phishing email: Is the email from a public domain such as Gmail? Is there a sense of urgency to act now? Do you see odd misspellings or unfamiliar links? Real-world examples are an excellent way to get a keen eye for these details. ZeroFox protects email and collaboration tools specifically; take a deeper dive on our dedicated demo page to see more.
  • Spear Phishing: This type of attack bolsters the email version and can occur on email, social media, and other public platforms where people engage through direct messaging. Cyber criminals will use legitimate information they’ve mined to populate the scam email or message with more convincing details such as real names, places of employment, email addresses, and other information tied to their role or organization. The Sony hack using fake Apple ID emails is an excellent example of how far this can go.
  • Whaling: This type of attack combines both email and spear phishing, with the added layer of detail posing as an actual executive or business leader in the organization. The goal remains the same in spoofing vs. phishing: obtain sensitive information by convincing the user to provide it directly.

What is Spoofing? 

“Spoofing: Most commonly, an attack technique that relies on falsifying data on a network in a way that enables a malicious site or communication to masquerade as a trusted one.” (Courtesy of The Cyberwire Glossary)

Spoofing vs. phishing is an important concept, as spoofing can be part of phishing, but with the primary goal of identity theft. When posing as a trusted and known source, cyber criminals use anything from emails, phone calls, websites, IP addresses to DNS servers. Once the recipient believes the communication is coming from someone or somewhere they trust, the rest comes easy: providing personal information or login credentials, downloading malicious software or bypassing specific network and procedural controls. When a spoofing attack is successful, the attacker can access a computer system or network, obtain privileged information or simply defile an organization’s public reputation. 

There are many types of techniques employed using both spoofing and phishing together as a pair; let’s review the top three: 

  • Email Spoofing: These emails often contain links to malicious phishing sites or malware attachments that will infect the recipient’s computer. Email campaigns may also be used from a social engineering angle, asking the user to share private information via email or by calling a phone number where the attacker can pose as a customer service or security center. These tactics are easier to employ than most would think because of the disguised elements. Attackers will often send emails from a typosquatted (also known as URL hijacking) or extended email domain (such as @zer0fox.com or @zerofox-help-desk.com). Changing email header fields, such as Name and From fields, to reflect a trusted sender is also a common tactic. These emails could easily pass as valid to the untrained eye and fool users if they do not navigate with discretion.
  • Website Spoofing: Website and email spoofing are often a type of attack paired together. High-fidelity replica sites pose in place of a trusted original, and while not all pose as perfect clones, they still work. They often utilize typosquatting, homoglyph substitution, or target keyword strings in the URL. Regardless, all spoofing sites have one common goal: to pose as the original and obtain sensitive information. All a trusting site visitor has to do is simply click a malicious link, download a file, or open an attachment. With an added phishing element: a site visitor can also enter their username and password into a login screen, share credit card information to complete a fictitious purchase, or provide other private information to complete an implied action. Once executed, the cyber criminal has access to everything needed to commit identity theft, log into protected systems, make purchases using submitted credit cards, or sell sensitive information to others. Learn more on mitigating this type of attack here.
Spoofing vs Phishing Website Graphic
  • IP Spoofing: Disguising a computer’s IP address aids in either hiding the cyber criminal’s actual IP address or impersonating a trusted one. This can provide access to a network that authenticates users based upon login credentials and an IP address. DNS spoofing causes servers to resolve URLs, domains, and email addresses to a hidden IP address. This form of spoofing helps attackers divert traffic to a different IP address and lead users to phished sites with malicious downloads.

Spoofing vs. Phishing 

The primary purpose of spoofing is identity theft; the primary purpose of phishing is to obtain sensitive information. Understanding the difference between spoofing vs. phishing is critical; this helps us understand how the two double-down to a cyber criminal’s advantage. While phishing attempts and spoofing campaigns are nothing new, attackers have become more sophisticated in both the tactics and the platforms they leverage to conduct these types of attacks. 

With tactics ranging from email compromise to fake giveaways (across platforms as diverse as Office 365, GSuite, Facebook, and Linkedin), security teams need a scalable method to quickly identify and thwart attacks before they reach employees and customers. There are evolving solutions to quickly identify and remediate phishing, fraud campaigns, and malware-based attacks to match a cyber criminal’s efforts. ZeroFox leverages AI-powered technology and works on your behalf to not only stop phishing campaigns but dismantle the infrastructure behind them; click here to learn more about our anti-phishing software

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Spoofing vs Phishing: What This Means For Your Business

Why have we seen a rise in these attacks over the last few years? Simply put, phishing and spoofing campaigns are effective. Cyber criminals have doubled down, know their targets are often in a hurry and create a false sense of urgency to act immediately. Exercise skepticism at all times, even when arriving at what you think is a known resource, and even more so if you arrived via email, text, or another alternate link. 

The constant influx and evolution of cyber threats may seem overwhelming. Still, there are always innovations and expert analysts to help you stay abreast of what’s coming and how to navigate each development. A great case in point is the enhancements NIST may be implementing soon within the NIST Phish Scale tool, used for scoring phish deceptiveness. Additionally, these recommendations are helpful to any organization, big or small:

  1. Institute awareness training; use this free white paper and webinar to get started. 
  2. Continuously monitor for fake accounts (and domains!) and take immediate action to remove them before they can cause harm. 
  3. Examine attacker forums on the dark web and elsewhere for chatter to sell passwords, credentials, or planned attacks.
  4. Implement Digital Risk Protection for your organization.
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