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What is a cyber attack? A beginner's guide

What is a cyber attack? A beginner's guide

Discover the definition of a cyber attack, the different types of cyber attacks and how to prevent them.

What does a fake email from your bank, a virus on your computer and that massive data breach you heard about on the news have in common? They’re all types of cyber attacks.

And anyone who uses smartphones, computers, websites and any other digital infrastructure should be aware of them. Why?

Because the number of cyber attacks continues to rise year on year, and unfortunately, if you use any of these technologies, you could be a target.

Cyber security and different cyber attacks are huge topics. But let’s start with a basic overview in this quick beginner’s guide!

Check out the CyberStart challenge featured at the end of this blog to understand how cyber attacks can occur!

What is meant by the term cyber attack?

A cyber attack is a hostile attempt by an attacker or a group of attackers to target individuals or organisations through their online systems. While a cyber attack is initially carried out online, it can have serious real-world consequences for the victim.

But why do cyber attacks happen in the first place?

A cyber criminal typically carries out a cyber attack to gain something from their target. A cyber criminal may attempt a cyber attack:

  • To steal money or personal data
  • For blackmail
  • For revenge
  • To cause disturbance
  • For political reasons

In some cases, cyber criminals have even claimed they hacked into a company’s system to highlight their poor level of cyber security.

Whatever reason cyber criminals choose to carry out cyber attacks, it can have negative and damaging consequences for the victim. Since anyone can be the victim of a cyber attack, it is important to know the different types of attacks before learning how to prevent them.

What forms can a cyber attack take?

Cyber attacks may target specific or random victims. Different methods of attack are used depending on their purpose. Let’s take a look at some of the most common types of cyber attacks you may have heard of:

  • Phishing - contacting many targets through emails, text or other means of digital communication to try and collect personal data from them.
  • Malware - a broad term for a type of malicious software created to do harm to data and devices.
  • Ransomware - malware that holds computers hostage while demanding payment from the target to return the affected system to normal.
  • Brute-force attack - a method of continuously trying to guess data like usernames and passwords to access a private account.
  • Spear-phishing - a form of phishing tailored to specific targets in the hopes that they are more likely to be tricked.
  • DDoS - crashing a network or application by overwhelming it with fake traffic, preventing real traffic from getting through.
  • SQL injection - a web vulnerability that allows an attacker to view and manipulate data the website has access to, such as passwords, payment details and other personal information.

Check out some of our beginner’s guides to learn about specific cyber attacks.

What are some examples of real cyber attacks?

There are many examples of cyber incidents that have significantly impacted individuals, companies, and even whole countries! Here are a few major companies that fell victim to cyber attacks. Click on one to read the full story in our blog.

How to avoid cyber attacks

Whether you want to spot phoney phishing attempts or prevent full-scale cyber attacks, it is important to understand the types of attacks, and the stages involved, to understand how to defend against them.

The fun challenges in CyberStart are built by industry experts and based on real-world cyber security scenarios they’ve experienced. You’ll learn how to detect, prevent and fight back against many types of cyber threats.

Find out how by checking out the CyberStart challenge below.

HQ L01:C02 - Broken Banks

The Broken Banks brief tells us that a criminal gang is sending fake banking emails to try and defraud customers. It’s up to you to prove that the email is a fake.

Mixed Up Messages challenge

How to solve the challenge

This email is an example of a social engineering cyber attack, where cyber criminals pretend to be a trusted person or organisation to trick you into giving away private information.

Put your forensics skills to the test and analyse the email for anything suspicious to solve the puzzle.

Top tip: Keep an eye out for spelling and grammatical mistakes or anything that doesn’t seem quite right and always trust your instincts!

This challenge is a great way to learn more about how cyber criminals carry out cyber attacks while giving you the crucial skills to spot them.

Want to try fun challenges like this and learn how to fight back against cyber attacks? Register for your free CyberStart account and start playing today!

All of these programmes are entirely free, and feature CyberStart!

CyberStart America

What is it?

A fun programme developed to help you discover your talent, advance your skills and win scholarships in cyber security.

Who's it for?

13-18 year old high school students in the US only.

Awesome! How can I find out more?

Cyber FastTrack

What is it?

The fastest and most cost-effective route to a career in cyber security via free training and exclusive scholarship opportunities.

Who's it for?

College students in the US only.

Great! How can I find out more?

CyberStart Canada

What is it?

A free programme teaching cyber security to high school students in Canada through CyberStart's immersive learning platform.

Who's it for?

Students between the ages of 13-18 nationwide.

Nice! How can I find out more?