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What is a Cyber Attack? Types & Examples you need to know

By Tibor Moes / January 2023

What is a Cyber Attack? Types & Examples you need to know

What is a Cyber Attack?

You often hear the term cyber attack. But you don’t know how it happens or why it should matter to you. A cyber attack is an intrusion by hackers into computers, networks, and other devices with the intent to steal information or cause harm. But a cyber attack can take many forms.

“What is a cyber attack” is a simple question with a complex answer. We have to dig a bit deeper to understand how and why it can happen to you.

Summary: Cyber attacks are performed by cyber criminals, and they have been around since at least the 1980s. In 1988, the first Denial-of-Service, or DoS attack, was recorded. But although the first recorded case of a cyberattack did nothing more than slow down the internet, this practice has become increasingly dangerous over the years. Cyber attacks can come from anywhere and use a wide range of malicious code and techniques to gain unauthorized access to computer systems.

Tip: Cyber attacks take many forms. Protect your devices from malware with cutting-edge antivirus software and guard your privacy with a top-tier VPN service.

Why Do Cyber Attacks Happen?

The motivation behind cyber attacks can vary as wildly as the techniques used to perform them. Generally, you can categorize most cyber attacks into three categories: personal, political, and criminal.

For example, cyber terrorism is prevalent in the digital age. These types of attacks often seek to disrupt businesses or political actions. Of course, the most common use of cyber attacks is for personal gain. These individuals and organizations steal valuable information and sell it to interested third parties or use it to appropriate money.

Other forms of cyber attacks are known as hacktivism, which can be considered a gray area. While still illegal, these actions may be used by socio-political or personally motivated individuals and organizations to draw attention to important causes.

But whatever the reason, any action that grants unauthorized access to data or corrupts it is a cyber crime and often causes damages in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, directly or indirectly.

Cyber Attack Types You Need to Know

Familiarizing yourself with some examples of cyber attacks is the best way to understand how they happen, who they target, and how to protect yourself and your data.

Malicious Software or Malware Attacks

Malware is a type of malicious software or code that includes computer viruses, worms, ransomware, spyware, and other terms you’ve probably heard about.

While not all malware is used to perform cyber attacks, most of it is designed to grant access to confidential information or in some cases take control of the victim’s device.

Furthermore, these types of cyber attacks can be very difficult to guard against due to the vast arsenal at the hackers’ disposal.

Trojan Horse Attacks

This is one of the preferred attack methods for many cyber criminals. A Trojan horse is malicious software that can hide inside legitimate files.

However, those files release the malware into the system once executed or opened. Depending on what the Trojan virus was instructed to do, the attacker can obtain access to all sorts of files and information.

In many cases, these types of cyber attacks are used to create backdoors into systems that cyber criminals can use whenever they want until the Trojan malware is identified and dealt with.

Exercising more caution when downloading and installing programs is the first line of defense against a Trojan horse-type malware attack.

The second line of defense is to keep your antivirus, firewall, and anti-malware software updated for the latest cyber security threats.

Drive-by Attacks

The drive-by attack is another cyber crime that relies on the victim not being careful when browsing the internet. Malicious code is inserted into a poorly secured website.

Users that visit the website unknowingly trigger an automated script that executes the malicious software on their computer or device.

It’s called a drive-by attack because the victim doesn’t have to do more than visit a website.

These attacks are hard to stop unless you have the best antivirus software, always perform updates, and generally avoid visiting websites labeled as unsecured.

Ransomware Attacks

This malicious attack uses a specific type of malware called ransomware. In this situation, the attacker can gain access to the victim’s data and prevent that person or organization from using their data or devices.

If the victim wants to gain access again, they must pay a ransom to the attacker, often using a form of cryptocurrency which is harder to trace back to the cyber criminal.

Ransomware is particularly dangerous because it’s not easily spotted by traditional antivirus software. You must use good judgment and excellent security measures to avoid downloading malicious code like ransomware on your devices.

Zero Day Exploit Attack

A zero day exploit refers to a hardware or software network vulnerability that is yet to be patched by cyber security experts.

Some zero day exploits are disclosed in cyber security circles despite not having a working solution. Cyber criminals who learn of these vulnerabilities can exploit them before they get patched.

Another type of zero day exploit involves hackers and cyber criminals discovering previously unknown vulnerabilities. These are even more dangerous because cyber security experts can take a long time to catch on.

Zero day exploit protection is the most important and most difficult to implement because it requires excellent awareness, frequent updates, and skilled security experts and developers to find a solution in record time.

Until it is fixed, a zero day exploit leaves devices and networks defenseless against skilled cyber criminals. To the point where you may have to keep your devices offline or disconnect a server from the internet until a patch can be implemented.

DoS and DDoS Cyber Attacks

The DoS attack is perhaps the most common and one of the most dangerous for poorly protected computers and networks. It gets its name from the fact that successful attacks prevent the target from offering services.

This type of attack aims to overpower a system’s resources until it can’t distinguish between legitimate and unauthorized requests.

An ever more dangerous version is the DDoS attack or distributed-denial-of-service attack. Large scale DDoS attacks are more powerful because they’re often launched from a vast network of devices, including machines that the cybercriminal may control without the owners’ knowledge.

One of the best cyberattack examples of this kind was used against the Amazon Web Services in 2020. The numerous illegitimate and regular requests slowed down the service significantly because each query had to be analyzed and dealt with appropriately. This consumes many resources, especially during a DDoS attack.

Phishing Attacks

Cyber attacks classified as phishing attacks trick the victim by sending a request that appears to come from a trusted source. The request usually asks for sensitive information.

Essentially, an attacker fishes for access or information by portraying themselves as a trusted individual or organization.

Victims that fall for these attacks often download malicious code unknowingly after accessing infected websites or downloading files from phishing emails.

Another form of phishing is called a whale-phishing attack.

If you think about the whales of Vegas casinos, it’s easy to figure out who this type of attack usually targets. They attempt to steal data from whales or very important people of an organization, those with access to proprietary information, or very wealthy individuals.

A spear phishing attack can be even more dangerous. These are used with various forms of social engineering and are much harder to spot.

In spear phishing attacks, cyber criminals use well-crafted language, personal knowledge of the target, and other methods to appear trustworthy and gain access to information or credentials.

A cyber attack of this kind was instigated against Twitter employees in the summer of 2020. That’s when three cyber criminals gained access to the website’s internal management system.

The attack used phone phishing and resulted in many notable accounts being hacked, including those belonging to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, among other celebrities. The attackers were identified and charged only two weeks after the incident.

But it just goes to show how much the human component matters in cyber security and how even one of the most important companies of the digital age isn’t above compromise.

SQL Injection

SQL stands for structured query language. This is another popular type of cyber attack that targets databases specifically.

In essence, an attacker will send an SQL query that injects code into a place designated for passwords or other login information. When that server runs the command, the attacker may gain access to the database.

Successful SQL injection attacks can lead to a wide range of problems, including data corruption, data deletion, and the release of information. In addition, a poorly protected server can even lose control of administrative actions.

This means an attacker could act as an administrator and even cut off access to the database, which can bring down operations in various industries.

Some organizations combat this with state-of-the-art security measures and by using a least-privileged architecture when granting access.

It’s a lot like instituting a need-to-know policy that limits the type of users who can access databases or various parts of a network.

Less access means fewer people can misplace their login credentials or leave their devices unprotected.

Brute Force Attack

At first glance, a brute force attack may not seem very dangerous if you have a good security system. After all, it gets its name from its rather primitive and inelegant methodology.

A cybercriminal using brute force attacks simply tries to guess passwords, usernames, and other login credentials used to access certain systems. It can take quite a while, and it may not even work most of the time.

But it’s not impossible for a brute-force attack to power its way through a system’s defenses.

Many attacks use bots, or entire networks of bots, to test thousands of variations of someone’s login credentials. They may also use random password generators and other techniques to narrow down their search for a valid username and password combination.

Generally, putting lock-out policies in place can help prevent brute force attacks from succeeding. Such policies involve temporarily restricting access to an account after too many failed attempts or when detecting a login request from an unauthorized location.

You may find this lock-out policy familiar if you’ve ever received an email asking you about a device used to access your email account recently.

Another way to protect yourself and your organization from brute force attacks is to make the cybercriminals’ job harder by creating random passwords with multiple character types, numbers, etc.

It’s always best to stay away from common sequences like words and dates.

You can go one step further and implement two-factor authentication, like having a code sent to your phone or via email.

Man in the Middle (MITM) Attacks

These cyber attacks create breaches by positioning the attacker between two individuals, organizations, or devices. Essentially, the cyber criminal sits in the middle of an exchange of information and spies on potential interactions.

Various methods can be used for this and leave the communicating parties, or targets, oblivious to someone spying on their interactions.

A successful MITM attack can allow the attacker to intercept and read messages, thereby learning privileged information like login credentials. In other cases, a man in the middle attack lets the cyber criminal slightly modify the message before reaching its destination.

This is where strong encryption protocols are mandatory to keep your network safe. It’s also where using a virtual private network (VPN) can come in handy. Being anonymous makes it almost impossible to become a target for a MITM attack.

Dictionary Cyber Attacks

A dictionary attack is a variation of password attacks or brute force attacks. In a way, this is similar to spear phishing in that it’s more targeted and deliberate.

For example, hackers attempt to access someone’s email or devices using very common passwords such as birthdates, anniversaries, names, or words and phrases that hold special significance.

Using password generators and lock-out access policies can prevent most dictionary attacks from succeeding because attacks will limit their tries to words and phrases instead of random strings of characters.

Pro Tip – Alternating between lower and upper case letters or sprinkling a few numbers around common words isn’t enough to prevent dictionary attacks. Neither is misspelling or spelling them in reverse. Most hackers will try variations of common words, even when using a dictionary attack.

DNS Spoofing Cyber Attacks

DNS spoofing, or domain name spoofing, targets compromised systems of DNS servers. Usually, cyber criminals will send or redirect traffic to spoofed websites, or fake and untrustworthy websites, in an attempt to convince users to type in personal information, financial information, etc.

But not all DNS spoofing is done for direct monetary gain.

DNS spoofing can be used to send users to an inflammatory website in an attempt to tarnish your reputation. It can even be used by competitors to bad-mouth your products and services.

Sometimes, it will be used as a political campaign tool to ruin a candidate’s image, leak confidential information, or feed the public fake facts.

Insider Threat Cyber Attacks Compromise Sensitive Data

Some of the most dangerous threats to any organization come from within. In many cases, the same can be said about your personal security.

Someone you trust may have access to privileged information. But there’s no guarantee that person won’t turn against you and sell your data to the highest bidder or help someone access your system.

Insider threat cyber attacks are quite common in cases of corporate espionage and insider trading.

Imagine someone high up in your organization. They probably have a lot of access to different areas of your network and can access files on various servers.

Some will even have admin privileges and be able to change files, delete, or copy them.

Even if an insider doesn’t have the technical expertise to directly harm your organization, they may have sufficient access to help a cyber criminal bypass your security undetected.

From there, a nefarious third party could have a field day going through your files, stealing proprietary information, user credentials, your clients’ data, etc.

One of the biggest advantages for hackers to partner with insiders is learning about security measures and figuring out the best exploits to use to cause maximum damage in a short amount of time and exit undetected.

These attacks can cripple organizations and even make it difficult to mount a defense or react quickly.

What’s even scarier is that sometimes it doesn’t take more than someone in your organization plugging a USB stick into the right computer or sharing their password with an experienced hacker.

It’s Time to Step Up Your Cyber Security Game

Cyber security is one of the biggest concerns of the 21st century. As long as there are people with the criminal intent and the skills to breach systems, individuals and organizations must be on high alert.

A cyber attack can come at any moment, from any location. And since not all of them are targeted at specific individuals or businesses, you risk becoming an accidental victim in a larger scheme perpetrated on the masses.

We recommend you take your cyber security seriously and put the necessary precautions in place like using better software, eliminating bad browsing habits, and screening your emails and calls from unknown sources more carefully to avoid becoming a statistic.



Frequently Asked Questions

What is considered a Cyber Attack?

Any attempt at gaining access to restricted data and files with the intent to cause harm to an individual or organization, steal money, or extort the victim is considered a cyber attack.

What do you do in the event of a Cyber Attack?

Depending on the severity of the crime, you may contact the authorities. But perhaps most importantly, you should enlist the services of knowledgeable security experts to identify the vulnerability and beef up your security immediately following a cyber attack.

What are the five types of Cyber Security?

You can use the five types of cyber security to protect your data: network, cloud, application, internet of things (IoT,) and critical infrastructure security.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.

Over the years, he has tested most leading antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.

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