Differences between phishing and ransomware

Main differences between phishing and ransomware cybersecurity threats

Phishing and ransomware are two cybersecurity threats that cause serious consequences for all types of companies and organizations. Both can lead to significant financial and operational damage. Knowing how to identify and prevent them is key to anticipating the potential losses they can cause.

Both threats arrive through email

Reaching out by email to potential victims is one of the characteristics that make the two types of threats similar. The main attack strategy of phishing and ransomware is that one or more people in an organization receive one or more emails that pose scenarios designed to trap the recipients. As a general rule, these fraudulent emails are very similar to legitimate emails from banks, telephone services, parcel services, tax management and a long list of possible fake senders.

Cybercriminals who send these emails know that some users will open them and unwittingly take action needed to trigger the fraud. They exploit the fact that recipients may not have the necessary knowledge to distinguish these malicious emails and may not be able to warn their organizations about these serious threats. In many cases, cybercriminals achieve their goal and a percentage of users end up opening phishing or ransomware emails, triggering serious or even catastrophic situations for the affected organizations.

The fact that both digital security threats arrive mainly by email and can cause disastrous consequences makes them easy to confuse. Next, we will address clues that can be useful in identifying the two types of threats and, most importantly, help us to detect them.

A phishing attack attempts to obtain access data

In essence, a phishing attack is a malicious email message that tries to obtain access data to bank accounts, corporate servers or other types of login credentials that allow cybercriminals to enter systems they are not authorized to access.

A classic example of a phishing email is an email that mimics the logo and style of a bank. The message informs that the account or credit card is blocked and asks to click on a web link to unblock the account.

The web link usually opens a fake web page very similar to the real one where the victim is asked to enter their username and password. From that moment, the cybercriminal has the necessary credentials to access and enter the victim’s bank account.

Ransomware attacks aim to collect a financial ransom

Unlike phishing, an email message that triggers a ransomware attack usually requests the download of an attached file, for example, a PDF document with a supposedly important notification.

When the victim downloads the file, it triggers a process that locks documents and files on the affected device. Most ransomware threats can spread through shared file systems, eventually locking many devices in the impacted organization.

Trying to open any of the documents locked by the ransomware attack usually brings up a message on the screen demanding a payment in exchange for a key that supposedly unlocks the documents and files. The message often asks for the payment in cryptocurrency, making it almost impossible to trace the money.

Ransomware attacks are becoming more sophisticated and convincing. This way they achieve their financial objectives knowing that many users will fall into their traps and some organizations will pay the ransom to avoid business downtime that could last days or weeks.

Don’t get the two threats confused

Even though phishing and ransomware are clearly different on paper, it’s relatively easy to forget or mix them up. Both phishing and ransomware have many variants that often result in victims receiving a malicious email which ultimately asks them to take an action that leads to a digital security breach.

To add to the confusion, any internet search will show hundreds of articles about phishing and ransomware that might not always help us understand each threat and how to detect them. Sometimes they are too technical or in other cases, quite confusing.

Regardless of the definitions, it’s important to be very cautious with any email that has suspicious elements like requests for credentials, web links or attachments. Most malicious emails, whether phishing or ransomware, present supposedly urgent situations, push us to act immediately, and warn us of possible consequences if we do not follow their instructions.

Awareness: the best prevention

For all these reasons, the best preventive measure organizations can take is to launch awareness campaigns. These campaigns often include self-study online courses with practical examples of the main digital security threats. The most effective courses include simulations of real cases, interactive activities, and learning assessment mechanisms.

Another awareness strategy is for the organization to send controlled emails similar to phishing or ransomware to see how their users react, making them aware of their vulnerability.

Awareness campaigns can also include many other elements like posters, regular internal communications, or essentially become part of the organization’s culture. Digital security awareness is not a one-time action; it’s actually a process that should occur regularly so that users in organizations don’t let their guard down.