Differences between phishing and ransomware

Main differences between phishing and ransomware cybersecurity threats

Phishing and ransomware are two of the cybersecurity threats that cause serious consequences for all types of companies and organizations. Both threats have the potential to cause significant economic and operational damage. Knowing how to distinguish and prevent them is key to anticipate the possible losses they may cause.

Both threats arrive by 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 aimed at luring the recipients into the trap. 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 spoofed senders.

The cybercriminals who send these e-mails know that some of these users will open the e-mails and take the necessary action to trigger the fraud. They take advantage of the fact that the users who receive these messages may not have the necessary knowledge to distinguish this type of malicious emails and may not be able to prevent their respective organizations from 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 means that they can be confused. In the following, we will address clues that can be useful in distinguishing the two types of threats and, most importantly, help us to detect them.

Phishing attack attempts to obtain access data

In essence, a phishing attack is a malicious email message that aims to obtain access data to bank accounts, corporate servers or other types of credentials that allow cybercriminals to enter systems to which they are not authorized. The classic example of a phishing email is an email message that mimics the logo and style of a banking institution. The text of 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 original where the victim is asked to enter their username and password. From that moment on, the cybercriminal already has in his possession the necessary credentials to enter the victim’s bank account.

Ransomware attack aims to collect ransomware

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, a process is triggered that locks documents and files on the affected device. Most ransomware threats have the ability to spread through shared file systems, eventually locking down many of the affected organization’s devices.

When trying to open any of the documents that have been locked by the ransomware attack, a warning usually appears on the screen requesting the payment of an economic amount in exchange for a key that would supposedly allow the affected documents and files to be unlocked. The notice usually asks for payment to be made in cryptocurrencies, making it almost impossible to trace the money.

Ransomware attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and convincing. In this way they achieve their economic objectives knowing that many users will fall into their traps and some organizations will pay the ransom with the prospect of having their business shut down for days or weeks.

Avoid confusing the two threats

Although the respective definitions of phishing and ransomware are clearly different on paper, it is relatively possible to misunderstand or confuse them. Both phishing and ransomware have numerous variants that in practice take the form of victims receiving a malicious email message that ultimately prompts them to take an action that triggers a digital security breach.

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

Regardless of the definitions, the important thing is to pay close attention to any email that contains suspicious elements such as requests for credentials, web links or attachments. Most malicious emails, both phishing and ransomware, pose 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 prevention measure that organizations can take is to deploy 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 that the organization itself sends out phishing or ransomware-like emails in a controlled manner to observe how its users react and make them aware of how exposed they are.

Awareness campaigns can also include many other elements such as posters, regular internal communications or ultimately become part of the culture of the organization. Digital security awareness is not a one-time action, it is actually a process that must be present with some frequency so that the users of the organizations do not let their guard down.