Phishing Fouls Security

You have an email invitation from someone you don't know. There is an offer for low-cost or free tickets to that game or show. Your financial institution said they have a problem and they need to get your credentials to fix your account. It appears that your email site needs some information from you, but it just doesn't look right. These are phishing emails.

Phishing Defined

When an attacker masquerades as a reputable entity or person in an email or other communication channel, this is defined as phishing. Phishing emails are distributed with malicious links or attachments that are used to extract login credentials or account information. Phishing attacks rely on direct messages sent over social networks, SMS text messages, and other instant messaging systems.

The FBI defines spear phishing as a targeted phishing attack, focusing on select groups of people who have something in common, be that working for the same company, banking at the same financial institution, attending the same college, or ordering merchandise from the same websites.

Phishing Statistics

I discovered some interesting statistics in the PhishMe infographic "Data Breaches and The Great Security Disconnect."

The infographic displayed the two major concerns of security professionals -- phishing (58%) and malware (56%). Ransomware is a distance third (23%).

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The infographic also points out that the common attack approach is through social engineering (46%) followed by targeted attacks (43%).

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What Drives Phishing?

Phishing produces gain for the attacker, usually financial. It can also open your organization to intellectual property theft, unauthorized resource usage, and the delivery of goods and property to the phishers. Criminals that have your personal data can access your financial accounts, use your credit cards, and even create a whole new identity using your information.

Spear phishing can also trick users into downloading malicious codes or malware when you click on an embedded link in the email. This is especially useful in economic espionage where internal communications can be accessed and trade secrets stolen. Malware can hijack your computer. Hijacked computers can be organized into botnets that can be used in denial of service (DoS) attacks.

Tactics that Succeed

Email was never designed with security in mind. There have been add-ons to email protocols that help reduce spam and phishing attempts, but they are not 100% successful. Even if someone doesn't use email, they can be a victim of a phishing scam by visiting the website that is not what it seems to be. They can be redirected to a man-in-the-middle attack that points you to a fake website.

Hackers often use foreign alphabets where they can create counterfeit websites with addresses that look almost identical to the real thing. I found if I have one erroneous letter in my bank URL, I go to one of the fake sites. Smartphone users can also be fooled into believing links are trustworthy by placing a malicious URL with the stream of hyphens.

Phishing is not always easy to detect. I receive a lot of phishing emails from college students using a .edu domain. They are relatively easy to detect if you look at the message address lines at the top left.

Assume that phishing attacks will occur. Even though you may buy software or subscribe to a service that helps block phishing attempts, it is never perfect. Don't let users assume the filtering software means they don't have to be vigilant.

An attacker can put a symbol on the fake website that claims it is locked, secure, and safe to use. It may contain a bogus TLS certificate for that site.

Is Training Enough?

Training is necessary but not sufficient to deal with phishing attacks. Making users aware of the phishing schemes is a good start. However, when someone sees a screen that looks interesting or an offer that is enticing, there is always a chance of impulsively clicking on that phishing email.

As a training solution, send out false phishing attacks and see what your users do with them. Those who respond to the false attacks should have further training. Don't just train once when the employee first joins the organization. Either have them attend phishing classes about twice a year or have online training with questions and answers where they can interact with a phishing detection module. Keep track of what these users do in the class or what they do with the interactive module. Those whose fail should be trained again. Don't accept a score of less than 100%. If there is one person who responds to the phishing attack, then you are in trouble.

Best Practices

Don't end up a victim of phishing:

  • Most companies, banks, organizations, government agencies, etc., do not request personal information or credentials via email. When in doubt, give them a call (but don't use the phone number contained in the email -- that is fake as well).
  • Use a phishing filter. Many Web browsers have filters built in or offer them as plug-ins.
  • Never follow a link to what you think is a secure site from an email. Always enter the URL contained in the email manually.
  • Don't be fooled by the latest scams. If it looks too good to be true, it probably isn't.
  • Report suspected emails.

Watch for emails that:

  • Insist on urgent action
  • Have unsolicited awards
  • Contain spelling errors
  • Have an unfamiliar or awkward greeting
  • Have an unusual or inconsistent email address, domain name, or link
  • Have suspicious attachments
  • Request login credentials, payment Information, or other sensitive information

Resources for further investigation: