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Hacking vs. spoofing: What's the difference?

While email, text and phone enable instant communication in a technology-driven world, they also expose individuals and companies to cyberattacks such as hacking and spoofing.

Hacking and spoofing are two common cybersecurity threats that affect individuals and companies, often resulting in financial loss. In 2023, nearly $2.7 billion was reportedly lost to imposter scams, according to data from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Hacking attacks can also be extremely costly for companies. In 2023, the average data breach cost was $4.45 million, according to a report by IBM.

While hacking requires more technical skill than spoofing, the introduction of deepfake AI has given fraudsters a new edge. Cybercriminals now use deepfake technology and social engineering to convince victims that they are dealing with a trusted individual. Deepfake technology makes spoofing attempts harder to identify because the audio and visual representations of the individuals are more realistic as technology advances.

While often confused, hacking and spoofing are two distinct cyberthreats with similar consequences for the victim.

What is hacking?

Hacking involves accessing, manipulating or exploiting computer systems, networks and data. This requires technical skill and is often mistaken for spoofing, which does not require the same skill level. Using hacking methods, attackers access accounts or networks without authorization to obtain information from individuals or organizations.

Attackers can access sensitive data through breaches, using malware for data theft and overloading servers to disrupt services. Attackers take advantage of inadequate security practices and software vulnerabilities to gain access to systems or accounts.

Some common hacking methods include the following:

  • Malware. Malware is a harmful program that includes software such as viruses, Trojans or keyloggers that intentionally harm a computer or network. Malware can allow attackers to steal data or gain control of compromised devices.
  • Ransomware. In a ransomware attack, once attackers access an account or network, they lock the legitimate users out and demand payment from the organization to regain access.
  • Fake wireless access points. Attackers set up Wi-Fi hotspots with legitimate-sounding names. Once a user connects, cybercriminals access and steal their data.
  • Bait and switch. Attackers create enticing and legitimate-looking ads. Once the user clicks on the ad, they go to a malicious website or inadvertently download malware to their device.
  • Brute-force attacks. Attackers use tools that attempt numerous password combinations until the correct one is found.
  • Denial-of-service attacks. In DoS attacks, attackers overload a system with a flood of traffic, causing the network to crash and become unavailable to legitimate users.

Not all hacking is malicious. Ethical hackers use their skills to identify and fix vulnerabilities within systems or networks. They help organizations improve their security posture by finding weaknesses in their systems. They do this by simulating real attacks to assess security and offer suggestions for improvement. Ethical hackers also assist organizations in meeting industry standard compliance requirements and provide training programs for companies.

What is spoofing?

Spoofing occurs when attackers masquerade as a trusted entity to exploit individuals. It is often used to make phishing more believable.

Phishing is a cyberattack technique where the attacker poses as a reliable organization or individual in an email or other correspondence. Cybercriminals use phishing to steal money, access systems, spread malware or obtain sensitive information. Spear phishing targets a specific individual and requires the scammer to gather information on them.

A spoofing attack obtains information from individuals without the scammer having to do the technical work of hacking. Spoofing attacks are carried out through various communication channels and can target individuals or companies.

Some common spoofing methods include the following:

  • IP spoofing. Scammers forge the source IP address in network packets to disguise themselves as trusted hosts to gain access to protected systems or networks. Spoofing attacks on companies can result in data breaches or ransomware attacks.
  • Email spoofing. Commonly used in phishing attacks; scammers forge the email address of a trusted entity, allowing them to elicit sensitive information or login credentials from individuals.
  • Caller ID spoofing. Scammers forge the caller ID so that it appears a phone call is from a trusted entity.
  • SMS spoofing. Also known as smishing; scammers masquerade as a trusted entity and gather sensitive information from users through text messaging.
  • Website spoofing. Scammers create a malicious website disguised as a legitimate one. When users input their login credentials, the scammer gathers the data, which enables them to access the true account.
  • Deepfake spoofing. Cybercriminals use deepfake AI technology to create a realistic image or audio of a trusted individual such as a family member, friend or co-worker. Scammers use social engineering to manipulate their victims, often playing on human vulnerabilities and emotions. For example, a scammer might pose as a family member needing money or a trusted co-worker asking the target to share confidential information.

Signs you've been hacked

Attackers who infiltrate an email or other account gain access to private information. This information can include contact lists, credit card information and receipts. It's important to stay vigilant and recognize signs of hacking. Attackers can gain access to isolated accounts or entire devices.

The following are common signs that an account or device has been hacked:

  • The user receives notifications about login attempts not made by them or another authorized user.
  • The user finds outgoing emails they did not send from their account.
  • There are unauthorized transactions on the user's bank or credit card statement.
  • The user cannot log in to their account because an attacker might have changed the password.
  • Friends or followers of the user's social media account receive messages with malicious links with requests for sensitive information or money.
  • The user finds unauthorized software downloaded on their device.
  • The user is suddenly redirected to a random website when using their browser.
  • A sudden slowdown of the device is usually a telltale sign. Devices will run more slowly with age, but if this occurs suddenly, it can be a sign of malware.
  • The cursor on a computer moves or clicks by itself or the webcam turns on on its own. These are signs that an attacker is accessing and controlling the device remotely.

Signs you've been spoofed

Cybercriminals aim to deceive victims into believing they are dealing with a trusted entity, so spoofing attacks can be hard to identify. With newer technology and deepfake tools now available to scammers, spoofing can be even more convincing.

The following are signs of spoofing:

  • Grammatical errors in the text of emails or websites are a telltale sign. Reputable companies and organizations have teams dedicated to preparing their communications and websites. Cybercriminals are more likely to make syntax, spelling and grammar errors. Users should look for these errors when they believe they are dealing with a trusted company.
  • Errors or extra characters in a website's URL are signs that it might be spoofed. A website might look reputable, but the URL might have extra characters or incorrect spelling.
  • Banks or other financial institutions will not ask for member account login credentials through email, text or phone calls. If you're unsure, contact the company directly to verify any requests. Do not use phone numbers provided in an email or text, but a trusted number from the company's official website.
  • Slight inconsistencies in appearance, voice or speech can usually be spotted in deepfake impersonation scams. Using deepfakes, scammers can mimic individuals' appearances and voices over video or phone calls. Always verify directly with the person before giving away money or sensitive information.

What to do next

If you are a victim of a spoofing or hacking attack, act immediately. Report any suspicious activity to the proper authorities and company personnel.

What to do if you've been hacked

If a device has been hacked, use or install reputable antivirus software. Remove any malicious programs. Back up critical files on another device and perform a factory reset. After regaining access, reset all account login credentials.

If an attacker gains access to a social media or email account, follow the specific provider's account recovery protocol. Log out on all devices and change login credentials on all accounts.

If a bank or other financial account has been compromised, contact the financial institution immediately to secure the account.

Do not use the same password across multiple accounts because this increases vulnerability. Also, use multifactor authentication and biometric login whenever possible.

What to do if you've been spoofed

Individuals can report attempted phishing schemes to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov or to local authorities. Phishing emails can be forwarded to the Anti-Phishing Working Group at [email protected]. If the scammer is masquerading as an employee or representative of a company, notify that company.

In the case of an email or text spoofing scheme, run an antivirus scan to check for malware on the device. Remove detected malware. Watch for signs of identity theft and monitor financial accounts. Cybercriminals can use stolen data to access personal accounts or open new accounts under the victim's identity.

If a personal contact's name, voice or appearance is used in a spoofing attack, alert the person so that they can warn others. For suspicious phone calls, stay calm and hang up immediately. Then call the person at a trusted number to verify any requests.

Ava DePasquale is a freelance content writer with a degree in professional writing from Fitchburg State University.

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