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What Is a Cyber Attack? The Last Guide You’ll Ever Need

A few minutes of a cyber attack can risk the reputation you built for ages.

A cyber attack impacts your financials and puts the trust of your customers in jeopardy that you built with years of service. It raises doubts about whether people can trust your organization with their sensitive data or not, making cybersecurity an indispensable need for your business.

It’s advisable to have a standard cybersecurity program in your organization equipped with technologies like SIEM, user provisioning solutions, vulnerability management tools and others to protect from cyber threats.

Let’s dive deeper and explore the various dimensions of cybercrime.

Usually, the entity who is responsible for conducting the attack is referred to as the attacker. It can be sovereign states, specific groups, individuals within society, or organizations.

A cyber attack is aimed at accessing the device by hacking into a susceptible system. The intent can range from installing spyware on a personal device to destroying entire company’s or even nations’ digital infrastructure.

It can also be a part of cyberwarfare or cyberterrorism, where the product that facilitates a cyber attack is referred to as a cyberweapon.

Why do cyber attacks happen?

Cyber attacks have become increasingly sophisticated. The increase in such instances every year hints at a few common motives. Some of the most reported reasons include:

  • Ransom: Cyber attacks are aimed at extracting ransom from the owner of the device or network.
  • Accessing financial details: The aim of such attacks can be to access the financial details of the clients of a company or the company itself. This information can be publicized or used for personal monetary benefits. It can also be used to hack one’s bank account and drain out the cash.
  • Accessing intellectual property: The motive can be to hack into a company’s device or network to access product design or trade secrets to implement them in one’s organization or publicize them.
  • Terrorism: A common trend is seen among terrorist groups that hack into personal devices to install spyware or use encrypted services for communication. It is a potential threat to the safety of an entire nation.

Types of cyber attacks

Due to the highly developed hacking mechanisms, now cyber attacks have evolved into different types and can pose a greater threat to your device or network security. Here’s a list of the most common types of cyber attacks:


Malware is malicious software, commonly a trojan that interrupts the normal functioning of your system or restricts you to access the information stored in it.

Such software includes spyware, ransomware, viruses, and worms. In most cases, the user clicks on an unsafe link or email attachment that installs malware in the computer system.

Once installed, the malware can pose the following risks:

  • Ransomware: Blocks the user’s access to system or information and demands a ransom to unlock access.
  • Spyware: Obtains device data by transmitting from the hard drive.
  • Virus: Disrupts the components of the device or renders the system inoperable.


Phishing includes rendering fraudulent communication that seems to be coming from a legit company or an individual. The means of communication can be emails or text messages.

It aims to steal data, mainly private information like the victim’s address, credit card details, or healthcare records. While sometimes the attacker is satisfied with the stolen data, it can also be the first step to more massive cyber attacks. It can also install the malware on the victim’s device.

Attackers use emotions like fear, urgency, or greed to make the recipient click on links or email attachments. Once you get redirected to the link, you compromise any data that the attacker is looking for. Following the initial attack, you might be susceptible to losing corporate funds, damage your company’s reputation, or even make sensitive files open to access.

There are six types of phishing:

  • Spear phishing: Targeted toward specific individuals rather than a broad group.
  • Sms-phishing or smishing: Tricks people to give away their private information via text or SMS messages.
  • Business Email Compromise (BEC): Impersonating a company’s executive supplier.
  • Whaling: The malicious actor attacks the executive of a company such as CEO or MD.
  • Social media phishing: Attackers use social media to obtain information about the victim.
  • Voice phishing: Also known as vishing, this attack is in the form of a phone call indicating an emergency to obtain sensitive information.

Man-in-the-Middle attack

The man-in-the-Middle attack (MITM) is a type of cyber attack where the hacker relays or modifies communication between two parties who believe to be communicating directly. 

Eavesdropping is one example of a MITM attack, where the attacker establishes independent connections with two victims. The entire conversation is controlled by the attacker, where they can intercept communications between two victims, inject new messages or make modifications as needed.

The two common entry point for MITM attacks are:

  • Unsecured public Wi-Fi: The attacker can insert itself between the user’s device and the Wi-Fi network. This way, the attacker can access all the data transferring via the network on the user’s device. Unknowingly, the user passes all information to the attacker.
  • Malware: Once the attacker has successfully infiltrated a user’s device, they can install malware to intercept their communication.

Denial-of-Service (or DoS) attack

DoS or Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDoS) is a force method to stop a digital service from functioning correctly. It occurs when the attacker blocks access to a server or website connected to the internet.

This attack is processed using several automated systems that flood a network to exhaust the limited bandwidth. This makes the target incapable of fulfilling legitimate requests or responding to queries.

Structured Query Language (SQL) injection

SQL injection interferes with the query that an application makes with its database. It allows the attacker to view information that is generally concealed.

In some cases, hackers can escalate a SQL injection to perform a DDoS attack that may compromise the server or other critical infrastructure.

Zero-day exploitation

Zero-day exploits happen when a vulnerability is discovered recently, but not fixed. Once a patch is released, the users start downloading the security updates, reducing the number of vulnerable devices. The attackers target the vulnerability in this window of time between the declaration of the issue and its patch’s optimum implementation.

The techniques to exploit such vulnerabilities are usually sold on the dark web and are often discovered by government agencies.


Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and others have become increasingly popular and beneficial in recent times. The cryptojacking attack uses someone else’s device for ‘mining’ or generating cryptocurrency for the attacker.

It is a specialized attack that involves installing malware on the victim’s machine to perform the necessary calculations or run codes in JavaScript and execute it on the host browser.

DNS tunneling

While the DNS tunneling process has several ethical uses in the information technology industry, it can also be used to perform cyber attacks. During the attack, HTTP and other protocol traffic are sent over DNS. They can be used to disguise outbound traffic as DNS, concealing data that is usually shared via the internet.

For unethical use, DNS requests are altered to extract data from a susceptible device to the attacker’s network. Another use for this attack is to command and control callbacks from the attacker’s network to the compromised system.

7 phases of cyber attacks

There are seven phases in which cyberattacks are performed. Let’s take a deep dive into them.

1. Reconnaissance

Before the launch of any cyber attack, the attackers first identify the target and find the best possible way to exploit it. The attackers need merely one point of entrance to commence the process. Phishing is a common starting point in this step.

The aim of this first phase is to get to know the target. Some of the common questions answered in this stage include:

  • Who are the executives or important stakeholders in the company?
    The company’s website or LinkedIn profile is an excellent place to start looking for this answer.
  • Who are their business partners?
    Attackers can use social engineering, by making the classic ‘sales calls’ to the company, can extract such information.
  • What information is available about the company?
    A thorough web search on the company is useful for finding basic information. The rest of the information such as software and hardware used by the company can be found by running scans with the IP address or checking the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) web registry database.

2. Weaponization

Now that the attackers have the necessary information with them, it is time to create the equipment to penetrate the network. With the gathered data, the hackers create weapons for the attack. This could be coded for malware or creating phishing emails that should look legitimately like emails sent by professional vendors or business contacts.

The next step is to create fake landing pages or web pages. These might look like a duplicate of the vendor’s original website or even bank page. The aim of this website is to solely capture the username and password, a download link, or something enticing the visitor to click on it.

The final step in this phase is to collect the tool to be used when the attacker achieves unauthorized access to a device.

3. Delivery

In this phase, the attacking equipment is launched. Phishing emails are sent, and the pseudo-web pages are posted online. If the email contains a weaponized attachment, the user will quickly have malware installed on their device.

4. Exploitation

The most sadistic and dangerous part of the process begins now. Once the data is fed through the weaponized web page, the attacker now uses them against web-based email systems or VPN connections of the company network. If malware has been installed in the victim’s device, the attacker can access the device remotely as well.

The attacker uses this access to find the flow of traffic on the network, connected systems, and further exploitation possibilities.

5. Installation

Now the attackers pave their way to remain on the network for as long as they need. To ensure uninterrupted access, they might install a persistent backdoor to the network, create an admin account, disable firewall rules, or even activate remote desktop access on servers.

6. Command and control

At this stage, the attacker has complete remote access to the network or device, administrator account, and all required tools are now positioned for the next move. The attacker has access to the digitized aspect of the enterprise.

They can imitate users, make changes, and even send emails from the company’s highest executives to the employees. Here, the company becomes the most vulnerable since the threat might still be undercover and unnoticed yet highly potent.

7. Action on the objective

In the last stage, the attackers can do absolutely everything and anything through your company’s network. It should always be remembered that now attackers have motives other than monetary benefits, as discussed above.

Depending on their objective, the attacker may maneuver your company networks and act according to their wish. If they want to extract money, of course, they’ll let you know.

How to protect your business against cyber attacks

Mitigating the cyber threats of an attack calls for more than an anti-virus installation. It needs constant vigilance and awareness. However, it can be simplified by following some simple hacks.

Disclaimer: These recommendations follow the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework and do not constitute legal advice. If you have legal questions, consult a licensed attorney.

Here’s how you can protect your corporate networks from cyber attacks.

  • Limit employee access: Reducing human error chances can be highly beneficial in protecting the remote cases of a data breach. Allow your employees to access only the information that they require for their task. If an employee leaves the company or transfers elsewhere, remove all of their information from the systems.
  •  Patching: It is crucial to patch and update every one of your software on every device used by your employees. Do not delay downloading operating system updates as they usually have enhanced security features.
  • Secure all networks and access points: Make sure to optimize each network and wireless access point for your company’s use. Change the administrative password on new devices, set WAP to avoid broadcasting to SSID, and avoid using WEP.
  • Set up filters: Detect hackers and prevent spam by using email and web filters on your devices. Download blacklist services to block users from accessing potentially risky websites.
  • Train employees: The most crucial element for maintaining cybersecurity is to teach the best cybersecurity practices to the users. Every employee should be aware of the business and personal use of emails, treating work information at home, handling cybersecurity risks, etc.

Major cyber attacks in recent history

The increased sophistication in cyber scams has become traumatic to each victim. While cyber attacks’ intensity is almost subjective, some attacks have been on an extreme scale or hinted at the beginning of a new trend in the cyber attack realm.

Capital One breach

Online banking giant Capital One realized that there had been a data breach in July 2019. Numerous credit card applications that included personal information such as birthdays and social security numbers were exposed to the attacker.

However, unlike usual attacks, no bank account numbers were stolen. Nevertheless, the sheer magnitude of this breach had put a massive question mark on the whole concept of online banking and, well, the reputation of Capital One.

In a sudden turn of events, it was found that none of the stolen data was posted for public use or to the dark web. It was then found that the attack was made by Paige Thompson, also known by the alias Erratic. Thompson was a former Amazon employee, giving her a background for recognizing that Capital One’s AWS server was pathetically misconfigured, leaving it extremely vulnerable to attacks.

She never attempted to hide her intentions or profit from the collected data. She was caught later because she posted the list of breached directories of Capital One on her GitHub page without any real data.

The Weather Channel ransomware

In April 2019, when a stretch of a tornado had struck South America, many people depended on The Weather Channel for daily broadcast of the weather. However, one Thursday morning, the channel went blank for about 90 minutes, something unseen and unheard of before in the world of broadcast television.

It was later revealed that the channel had fallen prey to a ransomware attack. There was no clear indication of the attack vector, but it was most probably a phishing attack. Due to the attack, The Weather Channel was unable to broadcast since it was completely reliant on the internet-based services for relaying the programs.

Nevertheless, the channel did not fork out any cryptocurrencies. Instead, the strong backup of the affected servers helped them resume the broadcast within two hours.


Almost the entire world faced the effect of WannaCry ransomware in May 2017. The malware infiltrated through the devices and encrypted the hard drive content. The attackers then demanded a payment in Bitcoin for the decryption of the content.

Apart from the sheer scale of the attack, the scariest part of this attack was the medium of propagation. The attackers used a Microsoft Windows vulnerability through a code secretly developed by the United States National Security Agency for this purpose. Popularly known as ‘EternalBlue,’ the code was stolen and leaked by the hacking group’ Shadow Brokers.’

While Microsoft had already launched a patch weeks prior, many users hadn’t installed it yet, and the attackers exploited this window on a massive scale.


Monetary benefits have always held the top rank in the list of reasons for cyberattacks. This attack deserves a spot because of the sheer amount of money drained out of the company within a matter of seconds.

In July 2017, $7.4 million was stolen from the Ethereum app platform. Within weeks, there was another heist of $32 million in the same manner. This raised questions about the security of blockchain cryptocurrencies across the globe.

Texas ransomware attacks

In August 2019, 22 computer systems used in different towns by the Texas municipality became the victim of a cyber attack. Due to this the municipality could not provide basic services such as birth and death certificates in different towns.

The attacker(s), who used REvil ransomware were able to attack different towns at the same time solely because the IT vendors providing services to these municipalities were too small to support full-time IT staff.

Nevertheless, instead of paying $2.5 million as demanded, the Texas state government’s Department of Information Resources teamed up with the towns to lead a remediation effort. Within weeks, the towns were back stronger.

Protect your digital doorstep

Ever since information technology evolved as a basic necessity, cyber attacks have become a growing threat.

Nobody is entirely safe from their impending danger, but can always prevent them from happening. With the paradigm of cyberethics changing daily, we need to protect our property online by imposing all necessary measures.

Take the first step today and fix vulnerabilities in your assets to protect yourself from cyber attacks.

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