Table of contents

Phishing Guide

This guide provides information about ‘phishing’ is. It describes what phishing is, and how it happens. It tells you what you can do to protect yourself, and to keep Ministry of Justice (MoJ) systems secure.

There is also information on what to do if you think you have been phished.

What is a phish?

Phishing attacks are when threat actors pretend to be legitimate parties. They do this to steal money, credentials, or sensitive information. There are a variety of phishing attacks that you might come across. Some are more sophisticated or targeted than others.

Phishes often use two techniques:

  • They affect emotional states.
  • They create a sense of urgency.

Urgency makes users want to do the actions requested as quickly as possible. The combination of urgency and emotional manipulation leaves users feeling panicked and worried. It might fill them with a sense of euphoria. Threat actors use emotion and deadlines to convince users to act. The user doesn’t take the time to think about whether it’s a sensible or valid request.

Most phishes are emails, but they can also use other technology, such as SMS texts or telephone calls.

Threat actors might use phishes to request payments. They might ask you to click links and log in to an account or change a password. They might instruct you to buy items for them. They might get you to provide some personal details before you can claim a supposed prize. Never use the link in an email asking you to change a password. Use an out-of-band method such as going directly to the website to change a password. Be cautious when following password actions requested in emails or texts.

Threat actors utilise a variety of methods in phishes. They often take advantage of seasonal events to appear more legitimate. They use emotional and urgent triggers such as:

  • Telling you that your tax return is overdue.
  • Threatening to share access to your personal sensitive photos unless you pay.
  • A request to send money urgently to a family member in trouble.
  • Telling you ‘good news’ ,for example that you have won a big prize or are due a tax rebate.
  • Providing a final demand about a very overdue invoice that, if unpaid, will see you taken to court.
  • A ‘last warning’ about resetting your password, otherwise you will lose account access.

Beware of messages that create a sense of urgency or a heightened emotional state - good or bad. Treat such messages with suspicion. Check the message before you take any action. Unexpected messages with attachments are also common. Never open the attachment until you have done an out of band check.

Common types of phish

There are many different types of phish. You might recognise many of them. But the more sophisticated the phishing attack, the harder it is to spot. Out of band checks are the best way to stop a phishing attack. They use a second, different method of communication to check the authenticity of the contact and the requested action.

Email phishing

These are emails that request actions. Examples include clicking on links to change passwords, or requesting money. Never use the link in an email asking you to change a password. Use an out-of-band method such as going directly to the website to change a password. Be cautious when following password actions requested in emails or texts.

SMS phishing (smishing)

These are text messages that ask you to click links to access services or to pay for things. They often take advantage of seasonal events to appear more legitimate. Examples include Christmas delivery phishing texts, or texts around tax return time. Other recent examples use Covid news items to demand payments or personal information.

Voice phishing (vishing)

These are phone calls that ask you for sensitive information, or payments, or remote access to your devices. Threat actors might pretend to be from banks and other official organisations. Others might claim to be technology companies such as Microsoft. Another vishing example might claim to be from a jail, requesting bail money.

Spear phishing

Some phishing attacks focus on specific targets. Threat actors use OSINT to gather data about an individual. They can then create a ‘custom phish’. It is interesting for the target. The target is then more likely to respond to the phish. Examples include real names or work-related jargon. These are often very sophisticated phishes. The use of personal data makes the phish more likely to succeed.

Whale phishing (whaling)

These target at high level individuals such as CEOs and Director level and above staff. Whaling uses a variety of phishing methods to contact high profile targets. The goal is to steal large sums of money, or access high level credentials, intellectual property, and sensitive information.

Business email compromise (BEC)

This type of phishing attack targets high level staff to steal money or reveal sensitive information. Threat actors pretend to be another high-level staff member. They do this by using their name or email address to seem legitimate. They often create a sense of urgency to convince junior staff to do the requested action. These emails often come from a compromised staff member’s email account. This means the email system doesn’t block the sender.

Watering hole attack

This is a very sophisticated supply chain attack. It uses research from an organisation’s frequently used websites to identify a target. Targeted websites are then compromised and infected with malware. When users visit the websites, the malware downloads onto their systems. These are sophisticated attacks. The user is visiting an official and legitimate website. It is the website itself that has been compromised.

QR codes

Quick response codes (QR Codes) are a form of matrix (two-dimensional) barcode. They are machine-readable links. A QR code reader on a mobile device sends the user to a website or app. You don’t need to click or type a link.

Some devices have QR code readers built into their camera app. Other devices need a dedicated app.

When you scan the QR code, the app asks you if you wish to go to the website or app described by the QR code.

Note: QR codes are not human readable. This means it is important to verify that the codes are legitimate and have not been tampered with.

You’ll see QR codes in many situations. They give easy access to restaurant menus. They link to charity donation pages or surveys. Banks use them to link to services. They can be used to join wifi hotspots. They can be used to add contacts directly to your contacts list.

A QR code in an official context should be as safe to scan as an ordinary web link. For example, a QR code on an official notice in an MoJ building.

If the QR code is not labelled, or is from an unknown person, be suspicious. For example, a QR code stuck on a lamppost, or a QR code on a non-official flyer on a wall in a public location. These are not safe to scan.

It’s possible that even a QR code in a safe, official place might be tampered with. Someone might draw over it. They might cover it with a sticker and a fresh QR code. If a QR code looks ‘contaminated’, don’t scan it. Report it to security.

In summary, the risk associated with QR codes is currently considered low. They are simply barcode versions of web links. When deciding whether to scan a QR code or not, follow the same procedure as receiving an unexpected message .

Multi-factor authentication (MFA)

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a great way to reduce the risk of account compromise by a phishing attack. MFA provides an extra layer of defence for the account. If you have MFA set up, threat actors cannot access your account. It’s safe, even if you accidentally reveal your credentials.

Never give MFA to codes to anyone. Genuine companies, banks, government departments, and social media sites will never contact you and ask you to tell them an MFA code. They will never offer to input it for you, or request you give the code to them over the phone. MFA codes should only ever be entered by you, directly into the account login.

MFA also provides an early warning system for credential compromise. If you ever receive an MFA code for an account that you are not actively logging into, then someone other than you is trying to access the account. This means your credentials might have been compromised, so as quickly as possible, you should:

  • Report the problem to security.
  • Change your password. Never use the link in an email asking you to change a password. Use an out-of-band method such as going directly to the website to change a password. Be cautious when following password actions requested in emails or texts.

Out of band checks

An out of band check is when an individual uses a different method of communication than the one the message came from. This method means that if one communication method is compromised, you quickly find out by using a different communication method to confirm validity. The likelihood of multiple communication methods for the same person or team being compromised is low.

Out of band checks are an easy method to confirm the legitimacy of communications and requests. They can confirm the identity behind a message or request, and they can confirm the validity of the message or request itself. Social engineering techniques and phishing tactics take advantage of people who do not use out of band checks. By doing an out of band check, these sorts of attacks can be stopped very easily.

Example 1: You receive an email request for an urgent review of an invoice, and immediate payment. The email comes from someone unexpected. You should find the official contact details of that person, and contact them using a phone call - but not email - to confirm that they did indeed send the original email. If they did send the email, you can proceed with the request. If they did not send the email, you can report the email as a phish, and also alert the owner of the email address that their email address might have been compromised.

Example 2: You receive a phone call from someone claiming to be your bank, or HMRC, or HMCTS. You hang up the call, and locate the official website for the company. You should be able to find multiple official contact details there. Use one of these to contact the place the caller claimed to be from. If, for example, the claim was that your bank was calling, you can call the direct number and speak to the switchboard about the reason for the initial call. They will forward you to the correct department. You can then confirm the validity of the original call, and so confirm whether the original caller was actually from your bank or not.

Example 3: Someone enters your place of work, and claims to have a meeting with a specific person. Unfortunately, there is no record of this on the expected visitor list. You can call or email the person within your place of work to confirm the visitor is legitimate. This check also works if tradespeople arrive unexpectedly, because you can contact both the relevant person within your place of work and also contact the company they claim to be from, using the company’s official website contact details.

Example 4: You receive an email requesting that you reset your password immediately. The email contains a link to perform the password reset. You have not attempted to login to that account recently. You should use an internet search for the website or type the URL directly if you know exactly what it should be. When you attempt to login, the website will let you know if you need to reset your password. If not, you know someone else has attempted to gain access to your account. That would mean the password reset request was not legitimate, and most likely a phishing attempt hoping to get your username and password through the reset link in the original email. Similarly, if you get an MFA request unexpectedly, do not confirm it unless you were indeed attempting to access that account immediately before the request came through. If you get an MFA request, but had not been trying to connect using the account, you should change the account password as soon as possible, because it might have been compromised.

When doing an out of band check, be sure to pick a different method of communication to the one used to contact you originally. If someone emails you unexpectedly, perform an out of band check by making a phone call. If someone calls you, perform an out of band check by using the Internet. It is very unlikely that multiple communication channels have been compromised.

Be sure to get official contact details for companies only from their official websites. Never be afraid to hang up on someone and check their identity through another method, especially if they are asking for sensitive or personal information or credentials. Never be afraid to check the legitimacy of unusual email requests. by contacting the sender through a different communication channel.

Doing an out of band check lets you confirm that the messages come from the person they claim to be, and that the requests are valid. This helps prevent you or your company from losing money to fake invoices, from accidentally giving up sensitive information or credentials, and from having unauthorised individuals in your place of work. Doing an out of band check is fast and easy.

All members of your workplace should be happy to receive such a check. It shows that you take security seriously, and that you are helping to protect them as well as yourself.

If you think you’ve been phished

Don’t panic.

You will not be punished if you fall for a phish - it can happen to anyone. You will not be punished for reporting a phish, even if it turns out to be a false alarm.

If you think you have been phished:

  1. Report it immediately.
  2. If your credentials were phished, highlight that in the report.
  3. Change the password for affected accounts as soon as possible. Never use the link in an email asking you to change a password. Use an out-of-band method such as going directly to the website to change a password. Be cautious when following password actions requested in emails or texts.

MoJ firewalls and antivirus systems should catch the majority of malware before they can affect systems. By reporting the incident as quickly as possible, the security team will be alerted and on the lookout for any more sophisticated malware.

If your credentials have been phished, reporting it immediately and resetting your password quickly greatly reduces the risks.

Any phishing emails that get through the filters and into your inbox will be very sophisticated. This makes them much harder for you or anyone to spot. Never feel guilty or ashamed for being phished.

Reporting phishes

Reporting phishing attempts helps improve the filters that catch them before they get to your inbox. They also help protect other colleagues and the MoJ from being compromised, or having data or money stolen.

If you think you have spotted a phish, or you think you have been phished, report it as quickly as possible. If you think you have spotted a more targeted phish that claims to be from a vendor or another staff member, do an out of band check to determine if it is legitimate. If it is not, then please report the email as a phish.

Reporting a phishing attempt is quick and easy. Contact service desk using one of these two options:

You can also forward on all spam and phishing text messages to 7726 for free.

Contact details

For any further questions or advice relating to security, contact:


If you have any questions or comments about this guidance, such as suggestions for improvements, please contact: