What to Do When You‘re Getting Phished but Have No Idea Because It Looks Totally Authentic

A "huge, startlingly fast-moving, and perplexing" phishing attack made its way to an estimated one million-plus Gmail users on Wednesday.

The scam, which spread via legitimate-looking invites that came from a trusted contact asking the potential victim to view a Google Docs file, quickly became the talk of the cyber world after it appeared to first target media organizations and then spread like wildfire soon after.

"[W]hen you click on the [invite] link to open the file, you are directed to grant access to an app that looks like Google Docs but is actually a program that sends spam emails to everyone you've emailed," according to a Recode story, which cited a thread on Reddit.

Google quickly fixed the issue, which did not relate to a vulnerability on its end, by removing the bogus pages and applications involved in the attack. Adding to the intrigue is that an ethical hacking student at U.K.-based Coventry University is now claiming the whole incident was an accident and was merely meant as a test for a final project he was working on - although there is rightful skepticism abound.

Google on Wednesday night suggested fewer than 0.1 percent of its Gmail user base was affected, although our own (admittedly unscientific and short-sampled) Twitter poll found that 39 percent of respondents received or know someone who received the phishing message. Did you? Please vote.

But beyond the attack itself, it is worth reminding you that phishing messages only seem to be getting savvier and more authentic-looking, fooling even seasoned experts. Gone are the days when obvious misspellings and grammatical errors provide a dead giveaway that shenanigans are at play.

I asked Trustwave VP of Security Research Ziv Mador whether organizations should just wave the white flag of surrender - or if there are still steps they can take to keep phishing at bay.

"Some attacks are so well crafted that while we can provide some tips, they are so slight that you really can't blame the victim anymore for doing something unreasonable," Ziv told me. "The Grand Mars operation is another good example."

(That op, by the way, uses phone calls to add legitimacy).

Nobody wants to go through life thinking everyone is out to get them, but practicing extreme cautiousness on the web these days still can pay dividends. Ziv suggested that you:

1) Think Before You Click

"Don't rush to click links even if they seem legit and sent by someone you know. If you did not expect them, check with your contact first to see if they intended to send it. Remember, once your machine is infected, the malware may send emails on your behalf."

2) Dig Deeper

"If you have doubts about an email or invite - such as the tactic used with Google Docs - first check the developer information or any other information about the application or website involved. If the information there doesn't seem right, don't continue (e.g. do not grant permissions)."

3) Turn to Technology and Teaching

"For businesses especially, deploy a secure web gateway, which leverages sophisticated logic to detect web-based attacks. Also, continually educate your employees on how to identify phishing attacks, especially the ones that are so good, you just can't believe they are malicious."

Dan Kaplan is manager of online content at Trustwave and a former IT security journalist.

 

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