The Wikipedia definition of phishing is:

the fraudulent practice of sending emails purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information, such as passwords and credit card numbers

But, now I'm tired of journalists in the mainstream media and some IT people, continually equate phishing with ransomware. They are different right?

Ransomware emails generally do NOT ask you to divulge any information. They just want you to click on the attachment or URL. But phishing and ransomware are often mentioned in the same breath.

I'd love to hear other opinions on this.

  • "Why do you rob banks?" - "Because that's where the money is."
    – dandavis
    Nov 9 '17 at 5:18
  • 2
    please cite your sources with links
    – schroeder
    Nov 9 '17 at 16:41
  • Come on, you can easily look up the definition of both terms and see they are entirely different. Also, I have never experienced anyone equating them. Could you provide evidence for that claim?
    – Arminius
    Nov 9 '17 at 17:45

Phishing is simply a delivery mechanism that works by duping the recipient into believing a message is benign. They're cheap to deliver, and often target old, unpatched systems (that still have active users.) The only definition that matters is "trickery".

Ransomware is the malware of choice simply because it's the most instantly profitable crimeware on the market today.

It's not a surprise that people conflate the two. Try not to be bothered by the terms people misuse -- it's a waste of your focus.


wiktionary has two definitions for „phishing“, whereas the first one is equivalent to your definition and the second one is

The act of circumventing security with an alias.

While I am generally in favor of the definition you cite (because of the etymology of phishing (fishing and phreaking), being „to lure for something/find something“ (fishing) combined with phreaking, „to fake“ or „to spoof“, there is an important point to keep in mind:

Language is, as unpleasant as that might be, how it’s used.

If people choose to use a word with that meaning, it might become prevalent. Another even worse example is „literally“ which has recently been defined to mean „virtually“, which is literally the opposite of that.

Language has to adapt to what people try to mean by words they are using - and all users have to comply to that, even if it sometimes is pointless (as phreaking and spoofing already mean what phishing turns to mean).

We‘re loosing some accuracy here and do not follow Kurt Tucholsky‘s

language is a weapon, we should keep it sharp

But this seems to become the consensus.

And there is a point in time where the maybe less educated people (not knowing phreaking or spoofing) reach consensus that phishing means just that. There is just no point in being angry or frustrated.

Whenever the main stream media touches our field of work (or any specialized field of work, really), there are sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle misunderstandings, wrong words are used and language does get less powerful because two things that are not the same are used with wrong meanings and sometimes said to be the same.

There are lots of those situations, but in the end: it doesn’t matter. The industry knows what phishing is and as long as the industry can use it correctly, the consensus of the masses is not that important.

  • Literally literally has a definition of the opposite of literally in Merriam-Webster, because people literally couldn't use the word correctly. This makes me sad. Literally.
    – jleach
    Nov 9 '17 at 19:40
  • @Dymeng me too.
    – Tobi Nary
    Nov 9 '17 at 19:41

Phishing is an effective method of attacking targets, and delivering malicious content. (Malicious content could be a scam website or a malicious folder or document)

You could receive an email that would like like an email from a bank or online store and without closer scrutiny would appear to be legitimate. This type of Phishing could be aimed at gaining a users personal details, but at the same time a malicious packet could be sent with the phishing email. Example of you received a Phishing email from the bank, they could put an attachment “monthly statement.pdf” this could lead to the user downloading the PDF and malicious content being deployed on the computer. This in turn could lead to the ransomware being deployed.

Although they are not one in the same, Phishing is a method of compromising a system. Much in the same was the ransomware could be downloaded thorough a dodgy file off the internet.

The act of Phishing can have multiple purpose, in this case it’s a delivery system, in many other cases it’s a way to gain personal data. You could use a Phishing attack to deploy a Trojan on a target system.

As for the way the media portray it, when Ransomware first became big in the media a huge portion of the population would have had no idea what it was. But most people are aware of Phishing and Spam emails as it has been a problem for years now. So for the media to convey anything about ransomware they need to attach some for of common ground to it. In this case it’s the method of Phishing to deploy the ransomware


Related but different.

Both are forms of confidence trickery (aka "social engineering").

Commonly the definition I'm aware of is this:

  • Phishing: Bad people are after your (e.g.) ebay account
  • Malware/Ransomware: Bad people who are after your computer

Delivery vehicles for both forms of crime is often an email of the Click HERE now or something terrible will happen! (Your account will be SUSPENDED!, etc.) variety. -- So I can understand the confusion. Some people just call any fake "Click-Here-Now" mail a phishing email.

This what the two terms have in common. Now what happens AFTER the click is where they differ.

  • Will the fake ebay website just wait quietly for you to input your password? -> Classic Phishing
  • Will the fake ebay website explode in your face and install malware? -> Ransomware (typically) (Although if your specific type of malware will wind up to be "ransomware" seems to depend on your geography.)

Now of course: It might do BOTH of these one after the other. And in that case we might need to invent a new word. ;)

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