What Is Smishing - Everything You Need to Know

Ayush Parti
August 19, 2022

Smishing is a type of cyber attack carried out on cellular devices. It has recently gained notoriety because it is getting widespread use. Smishing is carried out over mobile text messaging, also known as SMS-phishing.

As a variant of traditional phishing, targets are manipulated into giving sensitive information to a malicious entity. SMS phishing is often aided by fraudulent websites to increase its perceived legitimacy. Smishing occurs on many mobile text messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram, and sometimes even includes non-SMS channels.

What is Smishing?

The term "smishing" is a combination of the term "SMS" (short message service) and "phishing." SM-ishing is how the term came about.

To further elaborate, smishing is a form of social engineering that aims to manipulate human emotions and trust to break into a system.

Whenever a malicious entity "phishes" they are sending fraudulent links or emails that appear enticing so that the target opens the link. Smishing is exactly the same thing, with the key difference being that they use text messages instead of email.

These entities are on a mission to steal personal information. This valuable information is then used to commit fraud, identity theft or other online crimes. Typically, this includes stealing money — usually yours, but sometimes also your company’s money.

Cyber criminals often use one of two methods to performing a smashing attack:

  1. Malicious websites: The link posted in the smishing message might lead to a fake site that requests you to type sensitive personal information. Hackers use customized malicious sites designed to emulate legitimate ones so that you are fooled into entering sensitive information.
  2. Malware: A smishing URL link might trick you into downloading malware either knowingly or unknowingly. Once installed on your phone this software may run in the background or masquerade as a legitimate app, tricking you into typing in confidential information. This data is routed to cyber criminals.

Smishing text messages usually pretend to be from an entity you frequently use. This could be a bank, social media platform, etc. They ask you for personal or financial information such as your account or ATM number. Providing the information is like voluntarily giving away your money or data to thieves.

Smishing is now a business threat as well as a personal one. Why? Because there is a growing trend of people using their personal devices for work. Due to this smishing has become the leading form of malicious text messages.

Cybercrime aimed at mobile devices is becoming the most common form of social hacking. There are a few unique factors which make this a particularly insidious security threat. To explain, let’s unpack how smishing attacks work.

How does Smishing work?

Deception is the essence of a smishing attack. The attacker impersonates a person or entity you might trust in order to gain your trust.

Through social engineering, smishing perpetrators are able to influence their victim's decision making process. This is done using a combination of three things:

  1. Invoking emotion: Most cyber criminals seek to exploit human emotion to their advantage. Using tactics to invoke fear or greed an attacker can lower their victims rational thinking capacity so that they succumb to the scam.
  2. Building trust: By posing as legitimate entities, hackers gain the trust of unsuspecting victims. SMS texts also have a high open-rate besides being seen as a more intimate communication channel. Due to this, it is less likely to raise suspicion compared to, say, an e-mail. .
  3. Establishing context: Using a situation that could be relevant to targets allows an attacker to build an effective disguise. The message feels personalized, which helps it override any suspicion that it might be spam.

Keeping these things in mind, attackers craft messages that are likely to entice a victim into taking immediate action.

Attackers typically want recipients to open a URL link in a text message, which leads them to a phishing tool that prompts them to disclose personal information. This phishing tool often comes in the form of a spoofed website or app. Targets are selected in a variety of ways, usually based on their relationship to a company or location. Employees and customers of certain institutions, mobile phone subscribers, college students, and even residents of certain areas may be targeted. 

The attacker's disguise is usually related to the institution they are trying to access. However, it could be a mask that helps in obtaining identity and financial information.  

Using a method called spoofing, an attacker can hide your real phone number behind a decoy. Smishing attackers can also use "burner phones" (inexpensive, disposable, prepaid phones) to further obfuscate the source of their attack. Attackers are known to use email-to-text conversion services as another means of hiding  numbers. 

Attackers carry out their attacks in several key phases:

Mass distribution of malicious text messages or links. 

Steal the victim's confidential information. 

 Fraud by exploiting compromised data. 

  An attacker's smishing scheme succeeds when a user's personal information is  used  to commit the intended theft. This includes, but is not limited to, direct theft from bank accounts, impersonation using fraudulently opened credit cards, or exposure of non-public company information. 

How do smishing attacks typically spread? 

As mentioned earlier, smishing attacks are carried out through both traditional text messaging apps and non-SMS messaging apps. However,  due to their deceptive nature, SMS phishing attacks are mostly persistent and go unnoticed. 

 Smishing scams are amplified because users have false confidence in the security of their text messages. 

 First, most people are aware of the risks of email fraud. We are often sceptical of generic emails that say something like, "Hello! Check out this link." Filtering out genuine and personal messages is usually a major warning sign of email spam fraud. 

Secondly, most people don't pay too much attention when using their phones. Many people think that smartphones are more secure than computers. However, smartphone security is limited and does not always directly protect against smishing. 

 Ultimately, little more than trust and error of judgment are required for these programs to be successful, regardless of the means used. As a result, smishing can attack any mobile device with text messaging capabilities.  

Android devices are the largest platform on the market and are ideal targets for malware text messages, while iOS devices are an equal opportunity target. Apple's iOS mobile technology has a strong reputation for security, but no single mobile operating system can protect against phishing-style attacks. Misconceptions about security can make users particularly vulnerable, regardless of platform.

Another risk factor is using smartphones on the go. Often when I'm distracted or in a hurry. This means that when you receive a message asking for your banking information or voucher redemption, you are likely to be caught careless and react without thinking.

What are some common types of smishing attacks?

Each smishing attack uses similar methods, but the presentation can vary significantly. Attackers can use different identities and facilities to keep these SMS attacks fresh. Unfortunately, these attacks are endlessly reworked, making it nearly impossible to come up with a comprehensive list of smishing types. Using some well-established fraud assumptions, we can uncover features that help spot smishing attacks before they become victims.

Here are the general assumptions of a smishing attack:

Financial services smishing

A smishing attack on financial services is disguised as a notification from a financial institution. Most people use banking and credit card services, making them vulnerable to both general and institution-specific news. Loans and investments are also common assumptions in this category. Attackers impersonate banks or other financial institutions to disguise financial fraud. Characteristics of financial services smishing scams include urgent requests to unlock accounts and requests for confirmation of suspicious account activity.

Gift smishing

Gift smishing often suggests the promise of free services or products from reputable retailers or other companies. This is a sweepstakes, shopping reward, or other free offer. If an attacker proposes a "free" idea to build excitement, it acts as a logical override so they can act more quickly. Signs of this onslaught are limited-time offers and a limited selection of free gift cards.

Smishing Invoices or Order Confirmations

Confirmation smishing is a false confirmation of a recent purchase or service invoice. You will be provided with a link to follow up and may take immediate action to manipulate your curiosity or provoke fear of unwanted charges. Evidence of this fraud is a series of order confirmation texts or company names.

Customer service smishing

Customer Support Smishing attackers pose as trusted corporate support staff to help resolve issues. With this premise, popular technology and e-commerce companies such as Apple, Google, and Amazon are effective camouflage for attackers.

Attackers typically claim that there is a problem with their account and provide instructions on how to fix it. The request may be as simple as using a fraudulent login page, but more complex systems may ask you to provide a genuine account recovery code to attempt to reset your password. Support-based smishing scheme alerts include issues with billing, account access, unusual activity, or resolving recent customer complaints.

Examples of Recent Smishing Attacks

Because SMS is available to almost everyone with a mobile phone, smishing attacks are known to occur all over the world. Here are some examples of smishing attacks to watch out for.

USPS and FedEx Fraud - Order Confirmation and Gift Smishing

A few years ago, fake USPS fraud reports of him began circulating. This smishing attack may attempt to steal account credentials and credit card information for various services.

The message led to claims that the package was not delivered or was delivered in error and included links to website phishing tools masquerading as FedEx or USPS freebie surveys. The premise of these phishing sites varies, but many have been identified as trying to harvest account logins to services such as Google.

Early Access Apple iPhone 12 Scam – Order Confirmation and Gift Smishing

In September 2020, a smishing campaign surfaced to trick people into giving up their credit card information for a free iPhone 12.

This scheme uses an order confirmation premise, where the text message claims that the package delivery was sent to the wrong address. A URL link in the text sends the target to a phishing tool disguised as an Apple chatbot. The tool takes victims through the process of claiming a free iPhone 12 as part of an early access trial program, but inevitably asks for credit card information to cover a small shipping fee.

How Can You Prevent Smishing?

Fortunately, the potential impact of these attacks can be easily mitigated. You can protect yourself by doing nothing. Basically, attacks can only do damage if you take the bait.

However, remember that for many retailers and institutions, text messages are a legitimate means of communication. You don't have to ignore every message, but you should still play it safe.

To protect yourself from these attacks, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • If the message is urgent, slow down. Urgent account renewals and limited-time offers should be considered red flags for smishing. Be sceptical and act cautiously.
  • If you are unsure, please contact your bank or retailer directly. Legitimate institutions do not request account updates or login credentials via SMS. In addition, all emergency communications can be checked directly through our online account or our official telephone hotline.
  • Do not use links or contact information in your messages. Do not use offensive links or contact information in your messages. Go directly to the official contact channels if possible.
  • Make sure you check the phone number. Weird-looking phone numbers or 4 digit numbers are always a cause for concern, and it can indicate an email-to-SMS service. This is one of many tactics scammers can use to disguise their real phone number.
  • Choose not to store your credit card number on your smartphone. The best way to prevent financial information from being stolen from your digital wallet is to never put it there. Use multi-factor authentication (MFA). If the hacked account needs a second "key" for verification, the exposed password will be useless to the cybercriminal. The most common variant of MFA is two-factor authentication (2FA), often using SMS verification codes. A stronger variant involves using available dedicated verification apps (such as Google Authenticator.)
  • Do not provide passwords or account recovery codes via SMS. Both passwords and text messaging two-factor authentication (2FA) recovery codes can expose your account to abuse. Do not share this information with anyone and use it only on the official website.
  • Download an antimalware app.
  • Make sure you report all SMS phishing attempts to the appropriate authorities.

Remember, smishing, like email phishing, is a fraudulent crime. Coerce victims into cooperating by clicking on links or providing information. The easiest defense against these attacks is to do nothing. Malicious texts do nothing if you don't reply.

What to do if you are a victim of smishing?

A smishing attack is insidious and in situations where damage may have already been done, you should have a recovery plan in place. To limit the damage in the event of a successful smishing attempt, take the following important steps:

  • Report suspected attacks to organizations that may be able to assist you.
  • Block funds to prevent future or ongoing identity fraud. If possible, change all passwords and account PINs.
  • Check for strange login locations and other activities.

Each of these steps has a significant impact on protection after a smishing attack. Besides this, reporting an attack will also prevent others from falling victim to such malicious activity.

We hope you found this blog to be informative. At Heyhack, we provide pen-testing solutions for SaaS businesses. We provide cyber security analytics that exceed the level of ethical hackers at unprecedented prices–click here to know more.

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