The El Camino Effect in Anti-Phishing Training

Too often in anti-phishing training, or phishing defense in general, companies look for the wrong threats. That’s understandable to a degree, given that attackers constantly shift their tactics. But it’s a still a problem if, to use a bank heist metaphor, you’re looking for robbers who drive a Camaro vs. an El Camino.

Without training based on the latest and most relevant threats, you’ll increase the odds the bad guys get away. Sometimes when that happens, users unfairly get blamed. Not cool. As anti-phishing program administrators, it’s our responsibility to empower folks to succeed.

Understanding the El Camino Effect

To better frame a wholistic (strategic) approach to stopping phishing attacks, we need to understand the basic model outlined below. It shows why technology—normally, the first line of phishing defense—will  continue to be challenged and subverted by criminal actors.

The model shows how companies typically approach cyber-security with technology, along with the workaround attackers use. Imagine for a moment that several banks, the stand-in for users in this model, have been robbed by a gang of thieves driving a red Camaro.

The immediate response by security professionals (the police): be on the lookout for that red Camaro. Intelligence will be updated; firewalls and email gateways will be set to identify and stop further Camaro attacks in progress.

This is a good thing and exactly how technology should be utilized, but a significant gap in coverage remains. We must ask ourselves: what happens when the gang dumps the red Camaro and begins driving the blue El Camino instead?

An even more challenging question: are we really going to blame the banks (our users and victims) for being robbed because our security systems were looking for the Camaro instead of the El Camino? The same question applies to anti-phishing programs. Does it make sense to point fingers at users whose training isn’t as relevant as it needs to be?

Don’t Blame the Victims!

The answer, of course, is no. While I personally believe that improved anti-phishing requires appropriate use of the carrot and stick, it’s critical that any reinforcement achieves the results you want.

In anti-phishing, the focus needs to be on user reporting, not susceptibility. Understand that users are your last line of defense prior to a breach in the phishing kill chain. Rewarding them for reporting rather than falling victim is key to maintaining positive engagement and increased reporting of suspicious emails.

Too often, I see organizations go too far in the other direction, being too aggressively punitive.  Again, it’s fine to use the stick as well as the carrot, but not if it places blame on people who were trained to look for a Camaro and missed the El Camino. Let’s be clear about who’s to blame: first and foremost, the criminal hackers. And the responsibility for stopping them starts with us, the phishing awareness professionals, not our users.

A better solution begins when we understand (and admit to ourselves) that attacks will make it past perimeter defenses. Any assumption that technology alone will stop an attack is, quite frankly, irresponsible.

As the El Camino model demonstrates, any bank would (and by the way, most do) implement a response strategy for those times the criminals bypass the early warning and mitigation capabilities. Banks utilize silent alarms, activated and monitored by people, to protect against and respond to robberies in progress.

Anti-phishing programs need to do the same.

Collaboration is Key

At conferences over the last few years, security vendors have pushed a new silver bullet— machine learning and artificial intelligence. Honestly though, we should be learning a key lesson from decades of security breaches and the history of change in associated technology.

That lesson is simple: no single technology investment will stop all attacks on our networks and users.

Further, we need to recognize the leading security issue of our time: human interactions with and management of available technology. Put simply, we can no longer ignore the fact that criminal actors, security professionals, and victims are all people doing their best either to subvert or harden the protection of personal (private) and corporate (confidential) data and communications.

It is at this intersection of technology and people where we can achieve the most gains in cyber-security.

The first step is to implement solutions that empower not just awareness but the user’s capability to recognize, report, and mitigate threats. Working with your security teams, you need to base awareness training on active threats, whether they’re Camaros, El Caminos, or Ram trucks.

I have seen this collaborative, user-integrated model achieve stunning results, over and over and over. If we really want to stem the rising tide of breaches, we can’t make criminals of victims. Instead, let’s combine our security technology with well-trained humans. Let’s empower everyone to succeed—except the guys in the El Camino.

To learn more about phishing awareness effectiveness, view the 2017 Cofense™ Phishing Resiliency and Defense Report.


All third-party trademarks referenced by Cofense, whether in logo form, name form or product form, or otherwise, remain the property of their respective holders, and use of these trademarks in no way indicates any relationship between Cofense and the holders of the trademarks.

Why You Need to Keep Brands Out of Phishing Simulations

The top 4 brands in the world—Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook—are worth over $500B. Not the operations of those brands, not their proprietary technology, or their real estate—the brands alone. When something is that valuable, companies protect it zealously. They monitor how their brands are used and take action to defend them.

Cofense stands firm on not allowing 3rd party brands or logos to be utilized in our phishing simulations without prior express permission. There are times when we may partner directly with specific brands and organizations on the official inclusion of their brand assets in simulation content where it makes sense for something like an enterprise targeted phishing simulation. However, this is done in strict strategic collaboration with the brand’s legal and executive counsels to ensure the mission and strategy of protecting both the brand and reputation of ourselves and our strategic brand-partners is maintained throughout the entire exercise.

Who’s Got Access? “Value at Risk” Anti-Phishing

Part 3 of 3 

So far, we have looked at the concept of “value at risk” (VAR) and how it applies to anti-phishing. We’ve seen how this model can guide your anti-phishing program by focusing on the value of assets you protect. We’ve also examined ways to translate your organization’s data to dollars, which is useful if you’re responsible for data oversight and governance—in other words, it helps to know where data might live and the (estimated) value of digital assets should a breach occur.  

Data to Dollars: “Value at Risk” Anti-Phishing Strategies

Part 2 of 3

Last week,  we looked at the concept of “value at risk” (VAR) and how it applies to anti-phishing. This week let’s do a deep-dive into the “value” aspect of VAR. We’ll ask: do you know where your crown-jewel data is stored and how much it might be worth? Even if the answer is “Not exactly,” an educated guess can help set anti-phishing priorities.

This Amazon Prime Day, Keep Your Network Safe from Phishing

Unfortunately, with the world we live in, especially with any type of highly visible promotions or sales, scammers will try to take advantage of the situation. Remember last year’s Amazon Prime Day phishing scam? Consumers around the world received an email promising a $50 bonus for writing a product review, or an email stating there was a problem with their payment method or shipping information. When they clicked on an embedded link, they went to a bogus login page designed to harvest their credentials.

“Value at Risk”: Focus Your Anti-Phishing on the Bottom Line

Part 1 of 3:

Over the past year at Cofense, we’ve introduced and discussed the importance of elevating the visibility of anti-phishing programs to the Board of Directors level. The key measures we presented included a measure of capability we refer to as ‘resilience’ and enumeration of which specific attacks your organization may be facing.

As a result, the questions we are now answering for board members globally are –

  1. “What phishing threats do you need to be the most concerned with?”
  2. “How likely are you to stop those specific attacks in progress?”

In the same time frame, the World Economic Forum’s Partnering for Cyber Resilience initiative proposed a model for quantifying the financial impact of cyber-threats. It’s called value at risk (VAR) and can be quite useful when applied to phishing.

While the two measures mentioned above can and do begin to answer the questions already posed, they can also enable us to better understand and measure the Value at Risk associated with different types and models of attacks.

In other words, we can answer even more questions for your CEO and Board.

  1. “If this phishing attack breaches our network, how much will it cost us?”
  2. “Which phishing attacks should we worry about the most?”
  3. “Are we improving our capability to resist those attacks?”

Here’s How It Works

Most breaches begin as phishing attacks. People quibble over the exact stat, but no one doubts that phishing is the #1 attack vector. It’s easy enough to fool employees  into clicking on an email loaded with malware or a social engineering scam. One example: a crook in Lithuania fleeced Facebook and Google out of $100 million via emails spoofing a legitimate vendor asking for wire transfers.

To understand the risks of similar scenarios, a phishing-specific VAR model pulls together multiple data points to better visualize the impacts of:

  1. Known Active Threats —
    • Highlights the type and frequency of phishing attacks your company currently faces.


Note: The above graphic represents results of active threat phishing simulations run from March through May of 2018. Note the decline in resilience for those simulation models as the chart moves left to right. This indicates lower resilience for the threats listed to the right-hand side of the chart. Were these your company’s results, your program would best reduce current risk by focusing on repetition of those lower resilience simulations.

  1. Company Resilience to Known Active Threats —
    • A ratio representing the ratio of reporting to susceptibility
  1. Associated Dollars at Risk —
    • Identify and document the value of any impacts or losses from a phishing-related breach and the estimated cost of recovering from that breach.

These 3 factors can be tied together to provide a visual representation of phishing value at risk. In the chart below the X-axis represents the frequency of known attacks (increasing left to right). The Y-axis represents the capability to recognize and report (measured as the ratio of reported only over those susceptible in simulations) those specific threats. The size of the plot point indicates the value of data potentially exposed as part of your active threat simulations.

Plotting frequency (likelihood) of attack, your capability to recognize and report, and value of exposed data, as outlined above, shows your active-threat risk profile. The visual helps identify the specific types of attack your anti-phishing programs should focus on. To address higher-risk threats, simulate them more often.

Note: all threats identified on your chart represent a risk of exposure. Those plotted in the upper right are the most frequently faced and that your company is least likely to recognize and report.

To recap, knowing your phishing VAR means knowing the types and frequency of phishing attacks your organization faces, your ability to resist each type of attack, and the dollars each type might expose. An understanding of value at risk keeps your anti-phishing relevant, both in awareness training and incident response.

It also helps your leadership team make more confident decisions about risk tolerance, cyber-security investments, and risk mitigation strategies. You’ll be using your anti-phishing program data to figure out optimum ways to protect… data and dollars.

Next week in part 2, we’ll look at ways to assess the value of everything you protect. For another perspective on how to maintain your anti-phishing program, view our “Left of Breach” e-book.

All third-party trademarks referenced by Cofense whether in logo form, name form or product form, or otherwise, remain the property of their respective holders, and use of these trademarks in no way indicates any relationship between Cofense and the holders of the trademarks.