Cybercriminals will stoop to the lowest levels to carry out a cyber attack. For example, there have been mass phishing campaigns targeting the Ukrainian military and their families in the last few weeks.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, phishers took advantage of this by sending out mass spam email campaigns. Whenever an opportunity arises, cybercriminals will swoop in.
The thing that phishing campaigns have in common, however, is the language that is used to trick people into doing the fraudster’s bidding. The themes may differ, but common words and phrases are used across phishing email campaigns.
The Language of Phishing Emails and ‘Spontaneous Action’
When educating anyone about phishing scams, the language of the phisher is important to learn. Phishing attacks rely on communication as a vehicle to set up a scam. As such, the fraudster(s) behind the phishing email will configure the content of the email to encourage the recipient to perform certain actions.
This is a psychological trick that requires an emotional connection with the recipient and the email content. Language and emotion are well-understood drivers of behaviour. Take proverbs as an example: “Keep Calm and Carry On” was one of three similar sayings created as a campaign by the Ministry of Information (MOI) in 1939 in the event of war to “balance a ‘steadying influence’ with an incitement to ‘spontaneous’ action”.
Language matters: this universal truth about human behaviour is not lost on fraudsters who use it in their phishing email campaigns to incite their version of ‘spontaneous action’.
Phishing Email Terminology
Before looking at the use of common words within phishing emails it is important to understand industry phishing terminology. This terminology is used to describe the various types of email phishing. Some of the most common are:
Spear-phishing: targeted fraudulent email campaigns that are designed from surveillance and intelligence carried out on the target organisation. This helps to develop highly believable emails; the wording is typically targeted and uses the first name of the target to engage and develop trust.
These emails usually focus on individuals with privileged access to resources, such as system administrators. The common words used will engage with that specific person within their privileged role and will typically use emotion, such as urgency.
Email phishing campaigns: more generalised phishing campaigns that send out malicious emails to trick general users/employees into divulging personal information, including usernames, phone numbers, and credit card information. The emails use common words and contexts, such as urgency to trick the recipient into clicking a malicious link or downloading an infected attachment. The link typically goes to a spoof website or online app that then attempts to steal login credentials and/or personal data.
Business Email Compromise (BEC): often uses spear-phishing emails to begin the attack that ends in company money being transferred to a cybercriminal’s bank account.
Context and Common Words in Phishing Emails
Various organisations look at the type of common words and tactics used in email phishing campaigns. One such organisation is the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG). The APWG keeps a watch on the types of phishing activity happening across the world. As well as tracking popular brands that are spoofed, and phishing website domain registrations, the group also looks at trends in phishing email subjects.
A research paper from APWG looked at common themes, spoof URLs and keywords used in email phishing campaigns during the Covid-19 pandemic and related events. The researchers found that a common phrase used in phishing emails related to the pandemic was “expires in 2 days” used to encourage a sense of urgency.
The paper concludes: “From our deep dive into the content of corona-related phishing websites, we noted the importance of human factors and how attackers exploit individuals’ pandemic-driven wants and needs. Hence, it is critical to quickly educate people to better understand social engineering attacks so that they can protect themselves when technical mitigations fail to do so.”
Researchers have also identified the most common words used in phishing emails. For example, the top five according to a US-focused report are:
Arguably, these words are common in legitimate as well as illegitimate emails. Both the research from APWG and the most common words research led to the conclusion that words PLUS context is important in Security Awareness Training.
Context and Common Themes in Phishing Emails
Spam emails depend on context and common themes, as well as the wording. Some of the most common themes are:
Urgency, e.g., “Your account password has expired, please update your password now to maintain access to Office 365”
Fear of missing out (FOMO), e.g., “don’t miss out on this once in a lifetime offer…”: Research has shown that FOMO can be highly effective in email phishing campaigns.
Emotion, e.g., “we have recorded you while you were using a porn website…” this tactic is often used in sexploitation phishing campaigns
Authority (and urgency), e.g., “John, can you urgently process this wire to our latest supplier. If not done today, we will lose a large order” – the email will typically be signed by the CEO. In a company people in authority may have their email addresses spoofed to carry out Business Email Compromise and spear-phishing attacks.
Some Examples of Common Words Used in Phishing Emails
Research and experience have shown that certain common words are used in phishing scams across campaigns. Some of the most common phishing keywords include:
Message subject line examples:
- Verification required!
- Need urgent help!
- Suspicious Outlook activity
- Important! Your password is about to expire
- Action required…
Body content examples:
- A vulnerability has been identified in [app name here].
- To perform verification, click the link [a direct link or hyperlink button]
- Here is the new invoice for this week’s activities [click to access, name of app]
- [A spoof message from tech support] Please click here to install the latest [name of app]
- Your [name of app] account has been locked for security reasons, click here to unlock your account [a direct link or hyperlink button]
Current events may adjust some of the wording used in the subject line or the body content of a phishing email, but the tone and common keywords will likely be similar or the same.
Keep Calm and Carry On
The language of spam emails has common themes and related common words, but this is an Achilles heel for the fraudsters. By educating your employees about the common words used in phishing emails, as well as understanding the different terminologies of phishing attacks, you can help them to identify a spoof email before they click a malicious link or download an infected attachment.