What is URL phishing? Tips to spot and avoid URL phishing attacks

URL phishing 101: Understanding and avoiding online scams

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PUREVPNGuidesEverything You Need to KnowURL phishing 101: Understanding and avoiding online scams

Have you ever gotten that sinking feeling in your stomach after clicking a link, wondering if you have made a huge mistake? You’re not alone when it comes to URL phishing.

URL phishing scams are cunning attempts by cybercriminals to lure unsuspecting users into fake websites that mimic legitimate ones. One click and you might be handing over your login details, credit card information, or even your social security number – all to cybercriminals disguised as trusted sources.

According to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, these scams are on the rise, with over 770,000  reported attacks in just the first quarter of 2023.  

Don’t let yourself become another phishing victim!

URL phishing – An overview

URL phishing is a prevalent type of cyber attack that entices individuals through fraudulent emails or messages to visit malicious links camouflaged as legitimate company pages. 

Imagine a website that looks exactly like your bank’s login page, complete with the same logo and color scheme – that’s the essence. Criminals create fake websites designed to mimic legitimate ones, hoping you’ll enter your login credentials, credit card information, or other personal details. Once you take the bait and enter your data, it’s game over – they’ve stolen your precious information.

This form of phishing attack capitalizes on manipulating URLs to mislead victims. Hence, the importance of recognizing and defending against malicious URLs cannot be overstated in maintaining online security. Victims are often lured by phishing links presented in friendly communications, directing them to vicious websites that compromise personal data. 

By understanding the characteristics of URL phishing and learning to scrutinize website addresses, we can better safeguard our digital footprint against malicious cyber attacks. 

Read more: Phishing 101 – What is Phishing & How You Can Avoid It

Understanding URL phishing

Understanding URL phishing involves recognizing the sophisticated methods attackers use to deceive users into compromising their sensitive information. Here, we will explore the mechanics of such attacks and how users can identify potential threats:

The mechanism of URL phishing attack

Did you know that phishing remains the most common form of cybercrime, as stated by the Internet Crime Report from the FBI? The primary goal of phishing websites is to steal sensitive information. This includes usernames, passwords, credit card details, and other personal information that can be exploited.

Attackers can use various means to make the malicious link appear legitimate and trustworthy. This might involve mimicking the domain name of a well-known company or using a similar design for the phishing website to deceive the user into thinking they are on a legitimate site.

The process typically begins with a phishing email with a deceptive link, appearing to originate from a reputable company. This email might request the user to reset their password or update their information, creating a sense of urgency or importance.

Embedded within this email is a link to a malicious website. The attacker employs social engineering tactics to make the link appealing or necessary to click on, such as offering a reward or threatening account closure.

Common techniques used in URL phishing

Phishing attackers employ a variety of techniques to deceive users and avoid detection. Hence, it’s important to understand them to effortlessly identify and prevent cyberattacks:

Attackers often intersperse genuine links with malicious ones within the same communication, such as an email or a webpage. This tactic aims to build trust, making the victim less suspicious of the harmful links.

According to Email Security Risk Report 2024, the top three most common phishing attack types are malicious URLS, attacks sent from compromised trusted third-party accounts, and malware or ransomware.

2. Redirects

Redirects are legitimate web mechanisms used to take a user from one webpage to another. However, in the context of phishing, attackers abuse this feature by initially directing users to a harmless page, which then redirects them to a phishing site. 

This method helps bypass security measures that scan for malicious links. According to Enterprise App Today, 323,972 internet users fell victim globally to phishing attacks in 2021. This means half of the users who were a victim of cybercrime fell for a phishing attack. And this is despite Google’s cyber security measures blocking 99.9% of phishing attempts from reaching users.

Read more: Real-Time Phishing Protection Coming Soon to Chrome

3. Hiding malware in images

To evade detection by security software, phishing attempts may use images to hide malicious URLs or malware. These images can be embedded in emails or websites, appearing innocuous but leading to phishing sites or initiating downloads of malware when clicked.

4. Exploiting social media platforms

LinkedIn, the professional networking giant with over 1 billion users, has become a prime target for email phishing attacks. This booming platform, packed with career-focused individuals, creates the perfect environment for cybercriminals to cast their deceptive nets.

The statistics are alarming. In the first quarter of 2021, phishing emails disguised as LinkedIn communications were the most clicked-on social media messages, a staggering 42%. This exceeds the click rates of Facebook (20%) and X (formerly Twitter) (9%).

New recruits, with their recently updated job statuses, are particularly vulnerable. Phishers exploit this fresh start by impersonating senior staff, attempting to lure unsuspecting individuals into divulging personal information. Other tactics involve tricking victims into purchasing gift cards (like Amazon) or calling a specific number for “important job details.”

Types of URL Phishing

URL phishing attacks come in many shapes and sizes. Here’s a breakdown of the various methods phishers use to try and steal your information:

1. Typosquatting

Creating domains with misspelled versions of popular websites to catch users who make typing errors.

2. IDN homograph attack

Utilizing characters from different scripts (homographs) that look similar to those in the targeted domain’s script, deceives users into thinking they’re visiting a legitimate site.

3. Doppelganger domains 

Registering domains that mimic legitimate ones by omitting or adding characters, making them appear almost identical to the authentic domain.

Displaying a legitimate URL as the link text but programming the link to direct users to a phishing site when clicked.

5. Open redirect

Exploiting legitimate websites that redirect users to other URLs by inserting a malicious link into the redirect process.

These techniques highlight the sophistication of phishing attacks and the importance of vigilance when interacting with online content. By familiarizing oneself with these common tactics, individuals can enhance their ability to spot and avoid phishing attempts.

Common examples of URL phishing

Phishing attacks come in various forms, each designed to deceive and exploit. According to AAG, URL phishing attacks are usually performed through emails. In 2021, there was a global average of 16.5 leaked emails per 100 internet users.

Nearly, 1.2% of all emails shared are malicious, which translates to 3.4 billion phishing emails daily. These breached databases are sold on black marketplaces on the dark web, meaning cyber criminals can purchase them and use the addresses in phishing attacks.

Here are some prevalent examples:

1. Tech support scams

Often appearing legitimate, these classic phishing emails claim to be from tech support, tricking users into handing over their credentials. These emails use .HTML files or similar to bypass antivirus programs, posing as urgent or necessary attachments for the user to open.

Increasingly common, these emails deliver ransomware via macros embedded within documents, under the guise of legitimate files.

Read more: How to identify and avoid scam websites?

2. CEO fraud

Attackers impersonate high-level executives, attempting to pressure employees into transferring money or revealing confidential data. For instance, in a real-world case from 2016, thousands of people were fooled by a phishing website that looked exactly like Google News. This highlights the sophistication of phishing tactics and the importance of staying vigilant across all platforms.

3. Emails from fake organizations

Disguised as government departments or organizations, these emails aim to alarm or trick users into clicking on phishing links. Moreover, these emails often lead to fake login pages that ask for sensitive bank details. 

4. Fake advertising

Phishing attempts may also come in the form of advertisements, leading users to malicious sites under the guise of legitimate offers.

The Impact of URL Phishing

The impact of URL phishing is multifaceted, affecting individuals, organizations, and the broader digital ecosystem in profound ways:

Financial and operational consequences 

Due to URL phishing, organizations suffer immediate financial damage. According to a recent report, in 2024 nearly 94% of organizations fell victim to phishing attacks. 

What’s more, financial loss related to customer churn was the most common outcome at 47%. Businesses may witness a decline in customer support, as trust erodes and consumers choose to avoid companies that have experienced data breaches.

Moreover, the average cost incurred from a data breach initiated via phishing is estimated at $4.9 million, highlighting the severe financial implications for affected individuals and organizations.

Besides this, a significant 41% of organizations report taking a day or more to recover from phishing attacks, indicating substantial operational disruption.

The psychological toll of URL phishing

While the financial repercussions of phishing, like identity theft, are widely acknowledged, the emotional impact on victims can be equally devastating. Here’s a closer look at the mental toll phishing attacks can take:

  • Stress and anxiety – The aftermath of a successful phishing attack can be incredibly stressful. Victims may worry about the potential misuse of their stolen information, leading to constant anxiety about finances, credit scores, and even personal safety.
  • Loss of trust – Phishing attacks can erode trust not just in online platforms but also in personal and professional relationships. Victims may question their judgment and feel wary of clicking on links or responding to emails, even from seemingly legitimate sources.
  • Embarrassment and shame – Many victims of phishing attacks experience feelings of embarrassment and shame. They might feel foolish for falling victim to the scam, leading to social isolation and a reluctance to seek help.
  • Reduced productivity – The stress and anxiety caused by phishing can significantly impact an individual’s ability to focus and be productive at work.

Recognizing URL phishing attacks

Here’s the good news: phishers aren’t always perfect, so, by keeping an eye out for these red flags, you can avoid falling victim to their schemes:

1. Misspelled URLs

Legitimate companies take pride in their web addresses. Typos and strange characters in the URL are a big giveaway that something’s fishy.

2. Suspicious sender

Be wary of emails or texts from unknown senders, especially those with generic greetings like “Dear Customer.”

3. Urgent or threatening language

Phishers thrive on panic. Watch out for messages that pressure you to click on a link immediately to avoid dire consequences.

4. Requests for personal information

Legitimate companies won’t ask for sensitive information like passwords or credit card details via email.


Secure websites use HTTPS, which encrypts your data. If the website you land on after clicking a link lacks HTTPS in the address bar, it’s best to steer clear.

Read more: Can you get hacked just by visiting a website? Your easy guide to safe browsing

Implementing protective measures against URL phishing

To fortify online environments against URL phishing, implementing a blend of technological solutions and human vigilance is paramount. Here’s a structured approach to bolster defenses:

1. URL filtering

Utilize URL filtering to scrutinize and block access to malicious websites. Incorporating advanced protection mechanisms, including post-delivery protection and endpoint security, can further shield against sophisticated phishing attempts.

2. Domain checks

Regularly perform domain reputation checks to evaluate the credibility of websites. Implement Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC) to ensure the email sender’s authenticity, significantly reducing the chances of phishing emails reaching their target.

Read more: How to Report a Scam Website – Methods You Can Use to Report Easily

3. AI and machine learning

Deploy AI-based protection and machine learning models to identify and neutralize phishing threats proactively. These technologies can analyze patterns and predict potential threats with high accuracy, offering an additional layer of security.

4. Human vigilance and training

Conduct regular training sessions for employees to recognize phishing emails and malicious links. Utilize real-world phishing simulation testing to enhance their ability to spot and respond to malicious attempts effectively.

Encourage employees to report suspected cyberattack attempts immediately. Establish clear protocols for isolating infected hardware, deactivating affected accounts, and investigating incidents to mitigate damage swiftly.

5. Multi-layered authentication (MFA) and software security

Implement MFA across all user accounts to add an extra verification step, making unauthorized access significantly more challenging for attackers. Ensure all devices are equipped with the latest antivirus software and endpoint security solutions. These tools provide real-time protection against malware and phishing attacks.

6. Utilize a VPN

Consider adding a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to your security toolkit. A trustworthy VPN encrypts your internet traffic, making it much harder for phishers to intercept your data, even on public WiFi networks.

While many VPN providers exist, choose one with a strong reputation for security and privacy like PureVPN which offers robust encryption features and a commitment to user privacy, making it a valuable tool in your anti-phishing arsenal.

By integrating these protective measures, organizations and individuals can significantly reduce their vulnerability to URL phishing attacks. 

Bottom line

Throughout this detailed exploration of URL phishing, we have uncovered the intricate tactics used by cybercriminals and outlined effective strategies for individuals and organizations to defend against these malicious attempts. 

The sheer complexity and adaptability of URL phishing techniques underscore the critical need for ongoing awareness and proactive measures. As the landscape of cyber threats continues to evolve, all internet users must arm themselves with knowledge and tools to navigate the digital world safely. 

Stay informed and engaged by following PureVPN Blog for more updates on this evolving digital landscape. 

Together, by fostering a culture of security awareness and reporting suspicious activities, we can contribute to a safer online environment for everyone.

Read more: Stop websites from spying on you with the new Tracker Blocker feature

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some ways to determine if a URL is spam?

You can spot misspellings or odd characters in the URL, check if it uses HTTPS encryption, and be wary of URLs from unknown or suspicious sources.

How to check phishing or malicious URLs?

You can use online tools like Google Safe Browsing or URLVoid to check the reputation of the URL and always hover over the link to see where it’s actually taking you before clicking.

How can we check if a site is real or a scam?

You can verify a website’s authenticity by checking for HTTPS encryption, looking for any irregularities in the domain name, and searching for reviews or feedback from other users.

Is a malicious URL the same as a phishing attack?

While a malicious URL is often used in a phishing attack, not all phishing attacks involve malicious URLs; they can also happen through emails, texts, or phone calls.

Close the browser window immediately and run a security scan on your device to check for any malware or viruses.

Read more: Is your phone listening to you secretly? It’s time to discover the shocking truth!

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