Phishing is not a new phenomenon – it has been the most common attack vector for cybercriminals for a number of years – but, due to the increasing complexity of phishing scams, knowing how to spot phishing emails is becoming more important than ever before.
In spite of advances in anti-virus protocols and detection technology, phishing attacks continue to increase in number and impact. Everyone is a target in today’s cyberwar climate but, by educating your workforce about how to spot phishing and deal with phishing attacks appropriately, today´s targets can become the primary defense sentinels of the future.
Step 1 of How to Spot Phishing is Knowing What a Phish Is
The first step in spotting a phishing email comes with understanding what a phishing email is. The most accurate definition of a phishing email is an email sent to a recipient with the objective of making the recipient perform a specific task. The attacker may use social engineering techniques to make their email look genuine, and include a request to click on a link, open an attachment, or provide other sensitive information such as login credentials.
Socially engineered phishing emails are the most dangerous. They are constructed to be relevant and appear genuine to their targets. The recipient is more trusting of the email and performs the specific task requested in the email. The results can be devastating. If the recipient clicks on a link to a malware-infected website, opens an attachment with a malicious payload or divulges their login credentials, an attacker can access a corporate network undetected.
Why Socially Engineered Phishing Emails are so Effective
It´s actually quite scary how much you can find out about an individual on the Internet without having to hack databases or trick somebody into divulging confidential information. Hackers can quickly accumulate personal information from social media sites, professional profiles and other online publications in order to identify the triggers that people respond to.
It would not be too difficult to find details of an employee´s children, the school they attend, and an event happening at the school, in order to send the parent an email inviting them to click on a link or open an attachment about their child´s participation in the event. With the advent of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, phishers will be able to collate this information much more quickly in the future.
Tips for How to Spot a Phishing Email
Socially engineered phishing emails often evade detection by email filters due to their sophistication. They have the right Sender Policy Frameworks and SMTP controls to pass the filter´s front-end tests, and are rarely sent in bulk from blacklisted IP addresses to avoid being blocked by Realtime Blackhole Lists. Because they are often individually crafted, they can even evade detection from advanced email filters with Greylisting capabilities.
However, phishing emails often have common characteristics. They are frequently constructed to trigger emotions such as curiosity, sympathy, fear and greed; and if a workforce is advised of these characteristics – and told what action to take when a threat is suspected – the time invested in training a workforce in how to spot a phishing email can thwart attacks and network infiltration by the attacker.
Emails Demanding Urgent Action
Emails threatening a negative consequence, or a loss of opportunity unless urgent action is taken, are often phishing emails. Attackers often use this approach to rush recipients into an action before they have had the opportunity to study the email for potential flaws or inconsistencies.
Emails with Bad Grammar and Spelling Mistakes
Another way to spot phishing is bad grammar and spelling mistakes. Many companies apply spell-checking tools to outgoing emails by default to ensure their emails are grammatically correct. Those who use browser-based email clients apply autocorrect or highlight features on web browsers.
Emails with an Unfamiliar Greeting or Salutation
Emails exchanged between work colleagues usually have an informal salutation. Those that start “Dear,” or contain phrases not normally used in informal conversation, are from sources unfamiliar with the style of office interaction used in your business and should arouse suspicion.
Inconsistencies in Email Addresses, Links & Domain Names
Another way how to spot phishing is by finding inconsistencies in email addresses, links and domain names. Does the email originate from an organization corresponded with often? If so, check the sender´s address against previous emails from the same organization. Look to see if a link is legitimate by hovering the mouse pointer over the link to see what pops up. If an email allegedly originates from (say) Google, but the domain name reads something else, report the email as a phishing attack.
Most work-related file sharing now takes place via collaboration tools such as SharePoint, OneDrive or Dropbox. Therefore internal emails with attachments should always be treated suspiciously – especially if they have an unfamiliar extension or one commonly associated with malware (.zip, .exe, .scr, etc.).
Emails Requesting Login Credentials, Payment Information or Sensitive Data
Emails originating from an unexpected or unfamiliar sender that request login credentials, payment information or other sensitive data should always be treated with caution. Spear phishers can forge login pages to look similar to the real thing and send an email containing a link that directs the recipient to the fake page. Whenever a recipient is redirected to a login page, or told a payment is due, they should refrain from inputting information unless they are 100% certain the email is legitimate.
Too Good to Be True Emails
Too good to be true emails are those which incentivize the recipient to click on a link or open an attachment by claiming there will be a reward of some nature. If the sender of the email is unfamiliar or the recipient did not initiate the contact, the likelihood is this is a phishing email.
“If You See Something, Say Something”
Conditioning employees in how to spot and report suspicious emails – even when opened – should be a workforce-wide exercise. The chances are that if one of your workforce is the subject of a phishing attack, others employees will be as well. “If you see something, say something” should be a permanent rule in the workplace, and it is essential that employees have a supportive process for reporting emails they have identified or opened.
The reporting of potential phishing attacks and opened suspicious emails enables security personnel to secure the network in good time – mitigating the risk that a threat will spread to other areas of the network and minimizing disruption. It is also a good practice to identify which employees spot actual phishing emails in order to prioritize action when multiple reports of a phishing attack are received.
This is the basis of how Cofense´s Human Phishing Defenses work. Our solutions provide simulation exercises based on real examples of socially engineered phishing attacks in order to better teach employees how to spot phishing emails and report them – whether they have been opened and actioned or not. In the event a phishing email has avoided detection, our solutions also provide end-to-end phishing mitigation to accelerate response and resolution. Contact us today to find out more.