Just a little bit of exposed personal data can go a long way for a hacker

Hackers today use our exposed personal data against us. More than 90% of the time, cyberattacks are specifically crafted from users’ public data. To a hacker and to cyber specialists in general, this exposed, publicly available information is known as OSINT, or Open-Source Intelligence. OSINT can be any publicly available information a hacker can find on a target, such as data from LinkedIn, Instagram, and other social media sites, data brokers, breach repositories, and elsewhere. Hackers use this data to craft and power social engineering attacks. It is the data that tells the attacker who is a vulnerable and valuable target, how best to contact them, how to establish trust, and how ultimately to trick, coerce, or manipulate them. Social engineering attacks fool people into performing a desired action and criminals use social engineering to lure targets into handing over personal information, opening malicious files, or granting access to sensitive data.

In this post, we highlight some of the ways in which bad actors use our information in social engineering campaigns. Understanding the various ways in which even a limited amount of exposed personal information can be weaponized by social engineers can help us not only become more vigilant and cautious but will hopefully also motivate us to take proactive measures to protect ourselves and our companies before attacks happen.

Hackers need—and harvest!—personal information to craft attacks

In order to identify, choose, and plan attacks against potential targets, threat actors must first conduct OSINT reconnaissance. Hackers have a variety of tools that automate this process. They begin by searching for information and selecting a vulnerable target, and then using the target’s data to create a compelling story that will trick them. The social engineer uses one of several means, such as an email, social media, or a phone call, to contact the target and establish trust. If the communication is convincing enough, the victim will be fooled and unwittingly click a malicious link or give the attacker sensitive information that will be used against them or their company. 

On account of the essential role that public data plays in social engineering attacks, it behooves us to be aware of, and especially limit, the amount of personal information we share online. The larger our digital footprint is, the larger our attack surface is and the more visible we are to social engineers. The more information attackers have on a target, the easier it is for them to craft convincing, and ultimately successful, social engineering attacks. The less visible we are, the less attractive we are to hackers and the less paths to compromise there are to be exploited.

While deleting oneself entirely from the internet in the 21st century is not viable, by carefully manicuring what you share and with whom you share it, you can significantly reduce your visible attack surface and prevent social engineering attacks.

Even a little bit of exposed information can be dangerous

Hackers don’t need much personal information to wreak havoc on your life. They can do a significant amount of damage with just your cell phone number. Typing your number into a people search site, for instance, can reveal your personal information to an attacker in just a few seconds. This information can then be used for social engineering, identity theft, doxing, or other malicious actions, such as taking over your email and other accounts. 

With only your phone number, a hacker can easily determine your email address. They can then contact your mobile provider and claim to be you, route your number to their phone, log into your email, click ‘forgot password,’ and have the reset link sent to them. Once they have your email account, all of your other accounts are potentially vulnerable. This is one reason to avoid using the same username and password across multiple accounts! 

Once acquired, a hacker could also decide to ‘spoof’ your phone number. This makes your number appear on a caller ID even though it is not you. Using this method, a bad actor can impersonate you to trick one of your friends or colleagues, or call you from a spoofed number, one that you may recognize or trust, in an attempt to socially engineer you or to record your voice for use in another scam.

The fact that a hacker can do so much with just a limited amount of information should make us think twice about what we share publicly, even if it’s only our phone number. To see some of your exposed personal data, get your free report below.

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Exposed data and credential compromise

Hackers can also do a lot of damage with exposed login credentials. Usernames, email addresses, and corresponding passwords become available on the dark web (and the public web!) once they have been involved in a data breach. You can find out if your personal data has been compromised in a breach by checking haveIbeenpwned.com, for example. Whenever this type of information gets exposed, it can leave users vulnerable to credential compromise.

Credential compromise, also known as ‘credential stuffing,’ happens when an attacker obtains a list of breached username and password pairs (“credentials”) from the dark web and then uses automated scripts or ‘bots’ to test them on dozens or even hundreds of website login forms with the goal of gaining access to user accounts. There are massive lists of breached credentials available to hackers on the black market and, since most people reuse passwords across different accounts, it is inevitable that some of these credentials will work on other accounts, either personal or corporate.

Once hackers have access to a customer account through credential stuffing, they can use the account for various nefarious purposes such as stealing assets, making purchases, or obtaining more personal information that can be sold to other hackers. If the breached credentials belong to an employee, the hacker can use that access to compromise a company’s systems and assets. 

Since credential compromise relies on the reuse of passwords, avoiding the reuse of the same or similar passwords across different accounts is critical. Always use strong passwords that are difficult to guess and change them frequently. Additionally, using multi-factor authentication, which requires users to authenticate their login with something they physically have and something they personally know, is a good defense against credential stuffing since an attacker’s bots cannot replicate this validation method. 

Recent real-world examples reveal the dangers of exposed personal data for companies

Companies should be especially wary of the role exposed personal data of employees plays in cyberattacks. Three recent examples that made headlines highlight how just a limited amount of exposed employee information can be used to craft a successful social engineering campaign and breach organizations. 

Twilio and Cloudflare

In August, hackers targeted two security-sensitive companies, Twilio and Cloudflare, as part of a larger ongoing campaign dubbed “Oktapus” that ultimately compromised more than 130 organizations and netted the attackers nearly 10,000 login credentials. In the case of Twilio, the hackers began by cross referencing employee public data from Twilio’s LinkedIn roster (the starting point of most attacks) against existing exposed 3rd party breach data sets (e.g., haveibeenpwnd.com) and data broker data (e.g., white pages). This gave the attackers a list of personal information of employees to target. The hackers then created a fake domain and login page that looked like Twilio’s (twilio-sso.com or twilio-okta.com). Using the acquired personal data, they then sent text messages to employees, which appeared as official company communications. The link in the SMS message directed the employees to the attackers’ fake landing page that impersonated their company’s sign-in page. When the employees entered their corporate login credentials and two-factor codes on the fake page, they ended up handing them over to the attackers, who then used those valid credentials on the actual Twilio login page to access the systems illegally. 

exposed personal data

Although Cloudflare was also targeted in this way, they were able to stop the breach through their use of FIDO MFA keys. Even though they were able to keep the attackers from accessing their systems through advanced security practices, Cloudflare’s CEO, senior security engineer, and incident response leader stated that “This was a sophisticated attack targeting employees and systems in such a way that we believe most organizations would be likely to be breached.”

Indeed, the exposed personal data used to power the Oktapus attacks shows how dangerous even a small amount of public data can be in the hands of a social engineer.

Cisco 

In another example from May of this year, the corporate network of multinational security company Cisco was breached by hackers with links to both the Lapsus$ and Yanluowang ransomware gangs. In this case, the hackers acquired the username or email address of a Cisco employee’s Google account along with the employee’s cell phone number. They targeted the employee’s mobile device with repeated voice phishing attacks with the goal of taking over the Google account. The employee was using a personal Google account that was syncing company login credentials via Google Chrome’s password manager. The account was protected by multi-factor authentication (MFA), however, so the hackers posed as people from the technical support departments of well-known companies and sent the employee a barrage of MFA push requests until the target, out of fatigue, finally agreed to one of them. This gave the attackers access to the Cisco VPN through the user’s account. From there the attackers were able to gain further access, escalate privileges, and drop payloads before being slowed and contained by Cisco. The TTPs (techniques, tactics, and procedures) used in the attack were consistent with pre-ransomware activity.

Uber 

Most recently, the ride-hailing company Uber was breached by a hacker thought to be linked to the Lapsus$ group, who gained initial access by socially engineering an Uber contractor. The attacker had apparently acquired the corporate password of this contractor on the dark web after it had been exposed through malware on the contractor’s personal device. The attacker then repeatedly tried to login to the contractor’s Uber account, which sent multiple two-factor login approval requests to the contractor’s phone.  Finally, the hacker posed as Uber IT and sent a message asking the contractor to approve the sign-in. After successfully exhausting the contractor, the approval was granted, and this provided the hacker with the valid credentials needed to gain access to Uber’s VPN. Once inside, the hacker found a network share that had PowerShell scripts. One of these scripts contained admin credentials for Thycotic [a privileged access management solution]. Once the hacker had access to this, he was able to get access to all other internal systems by using their passwords. 

The Uber hack is a prime example of how, with only a limited amount of exposed personal data and some social engineering, a hacker can easily trick, manipulate, or coerce a human and compromise a company’s systems. See our key takeaways and remediation recommendations.

Limiting exposed personal data to prevent attacks

The examples provided here illustrate some of the common ways our personal information can be successfully weaponized by today’s hackers. It is now more urgent than ever for people and companies to know and manage their exposed public information proactively to help prevent attacks. Attackers are opportunists who care about their ROI. By limiting exposed personal data, it becomes more difficult and therefore more expensive for threat actors to succeed in social engineering attacks. Companies that recognize this fact pattern and take action to protect their employees will be more likely to avoid expensive and damaging breaches.

FOR LAPSUS$ SOCIAL ENGINEERS, THE ATTACK VECTOR IS DEALER’S CHOICE

By Matt Polak, CEO of Picnic

Two weeks ago, at a closed meeting of cyber leaders focused on emerging threats, the group agreed that somewhere between “most” and “100%” of cyber incidents plaguing their organizations pivoted on social engineering. That’s no secret, of course, as social engineering is widely reported as the critical vector in more than 90% of attacks.

LAPSUS$, a hacking group with a reputation for bribery and extortion fueled by a kaleidoscope of social engineering techniques, typifies the actors in this emerging threat landscape. In the past four months, they’ve reportedly breached Microsoft, NVIDIA, Samsung, Vodafone and Ubisoft. Last week, they added Okta to the trophy case.

For the recent Okta breach, theories abound about how the specific attack chain played out, but it will be some time before those investigations yield public, validated specifics. 

As experts in social engineering, we decided to answer the question ourselves—with so many ways to attack, how would we have done it? Our thoughts and findings are shared below, with some elements redacted to prevent malicious use.

How Targeted was this Social Engineering Attack?

To start, we know that Okta’s public disclosure indicates the attacker targeted a support engineer’s computer, gained access, installed software supporting remote desktop protocol (RDP) and then used that software to continue their infiltration:

“Our investigation determined that the screenshots…were taken from a Sitel support engineer’s computer upon which an attacker had obtained remote access using RDP…So while the attacker never gained access to the Okta service via account takeover, a machine that was logged into Okta was compromised and they were able to obtain screenshots and control the machine through the RDP session.”

For attackers to successfully leverage RDP, they must:

  1. Be able to identify the location of the target device—the IP address.
  2. Know that the device can support RDP—Windows devices only.
  3. Have knowledge that RDP is exposed—an open RDP port is not a default setting.

Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail: 

How Can an Attacker Identify Target Devices to Exploit RDP? 

Sophisticated attackers don’t “boil the ocean” in the hope of identifying an open port into a whale like Okta—there are 22 billion connected devices on the internet. In fact, LAPSUS$ is a group with a history of leveraging RDP in their attacks, to the point that they are openly offering cash for credentials to the employees of target organizations if RDP can be installed—quite a shortcut. 

Putting aside the cultivation of an insider threat, attackers would rightly assume a company like Okta is a hard target, and that accessing it via connected third parties would be an easier path to success.

Our team regularly emulates sophisticated threat actor behaviors, so we started by mapping the relationships between Okta and different organizations, including contractors and key customers. Cyber hygiene problems are often far worse for large organizations than individuals, and our methods quickly uncovered data that would be valuable to threat actors. For example, Okta’s relationships with some suppliers are detailed here, which led us to information on Sitel / Sykes in this document. Both are examples of information that can be directly weaponized by motivated attackers.

Two killer insights from these documents:

  1. Sykes, a subsidiary of Sitel, provides external technical support to Okta. 
  2. Sykes uses remote desktop protocol as a matter of policy.

This information makes an attacker’s job easier, and would be particularly interesting to a group like LAPSUS$—an RDP-reliant contractor with direct access to Okta’s systems is a perfect target.

Recon 101: Exploit Weak Operational Security Practices

With a target company identified, we ran a quick search of LinkedIn to reveal thousands of Sitel employees discussing different levels of privileged access to their customer environments. These technical support contractors are the most likely targets of attacks like the ones catching headlines today. Despite the investigation and negative publicity associated with this attack, more than a dozen Sitel employees are still discussing privileged access in the context of their work with Okta (nevermind the dozens of other companies). 

Now that we have defined this group, our focus narrows to deep OSINT collection on these individuals—an area where Picnic has substantial expertise. OSINT stands for open-source intelligence, and it is the process by which disparate pieces of public information are assembled to create a clear picture of a person’s life, a company, a situation, or an organization. Suffice to say that our standard, automated reconnaissance was sufficient to craft compelling pretext-driven attacks for most of our target group. 

To cast this virtual process in a slightly different light, imagine a thief casing your neighborhood. Good thieves spend weeks conducting reconnaissance to identify their targets. They walk the streets and take careful notes about houses with obscured entryways, unkempt hedges, security lights and cameras, or valuables in plain sight. 

Social engineers are no different: they are essentially walking around the virtual world looking for indicators of opportunity and easy marks.  

Before we explore how to go from reconnaissance to the hardware exploit, let’s recap:

  1. We are emulating threat actor behaviors before Okta’s breach.
  2. We conducted organizational reconnaissance on our target: Okta.
  3. We identified a contractor likely to have privileged access to the target: Sitel.
  4. We narrowed the scope to identify people within Sitel who could be good targets.
  5. We further narrowed our focus to a select group of people that appear to be easy targets based on their personal digital footprints.

All of this has been done using OSINT. The next steps in the process are provided as hypothetical examples only. Picnic did not actively engage any of the identified Sitel targets via the techniques below—that would be inappropriate and unethical without permission. 

Identifying the Location of the Device for RDP Exploit

There are three ways that attackers can identify the location of a device online: 

  1. Pixel tracking
  2. Phishing
  3. OSINT reconnaissance

Just as we conducted OSINT reconnaissance on people and companies, the same process is possible to identify the location of the target device. By cross-referencing multiple sources of information such as data breaches and data brokers, an attacker can identify and leverage IP addresses and physical addresses to zero in on device locations. This is always the preferred approach because there is no risk that the attacker will expose their actions. 

Pixel tracking is a common attacker (and marketer!) technique to know when, and importantly where, an email has been opened. For the attacker, this is an easy way to identify a device location. Phishing is similar to pixel tracking: a clicked link can provide an attacker with valuable device and location intelligence, but pixel tracking only requires that an image be viewed in an email client. No clicks necessary. 

Pixel tracking and phishing are examples of technical reconnaissance that were more easily thwarted pre-COVID, when employees were cocooned in corporate security layers. With significant portions of knowledge workers still working at home, security teams must contend with variable and amorphous attack surfaces.

For social engineers, this distribution of knowledge workers is an asymmetric advantage. Without a boundary between work-life and home-life—the available surface area on which to conduct reconnaissance and ply attacks is essentially doubled.

Social engineering’s role in the RDP exploit

According to Okta’s press release, an attacker “obtained remote access using RDP” to a computer owned by Sitel. Based on threat actor emulation conducted by our team and the typical LAPSUS$ approach, it is clear that social engineering played a key role in this attack, which was likely via a targeted spear phishing campaign, outright bribery, or similar delivery mechanism, which would have provided attackers not only with device location information needed for the RDP exploit, but also important information about the device and other security controls. 

Remember that social engineers are hackers that focus on tricking people so they can defeat technical controls. Tricking people is easy when you know something personal about them—in fact, our research indicates attackers are at least 200x more likely to trick their targets when the attack leverages personal information. 

The amount of time, energy, and resources required to complete this reconnaissance was significant, but it was made easier by the two key documents found during our initial recon on the target. While there are other breadcrumbs that could have led us down the same path, many of those paths offered less clear value, while these two documents essentially pointed to “easy access this way.” Finding these documents quickly and easily means that hackers are likely to prioritize this attack path over others—the easier it is, the less time and resources it consumes, and the greater the return on effort. 

Key learnings for cyber defenders

Recognize you are at war. Make no mistake about it, we are in a war that is being fought in cyberspace, and unfortunately companies like Okta and Sitel are collateral damage. Just as in a hot war, one of the most successful methods for countering insurgent attacks is to “turn the map around” to see your defenses from the perspective of the enemy. This outside-in way of thinking offers critical differentiation in the security-strategy development process, where we desperately need to change the paradigm and take proactive measures to stop attacks before they happen. I wrote another short article about how to think like an attacker that might be helpful if you are new to this approach.

Be proactive and use MITRE—all of it. The prevailing method used by cyber defenders to map attacker techniques and reduce risk is called the MITRE ATT&CK framework. The design of the framework maps fourteen stages of an attack from the start (aptly called Reconnaissance) through its end (called Impact)—our team emulated attacker behaviors during the reconnaissance stage of the attack in this example. Cyber defenders are skilled at reacting to incidents mainly because legacy technologies are reactive in nature. MITRE recommends a proactive approach to remediating the reconnaissance stage to “limit or remove information” harvested by hackers. Defenders have an opportunity to be proactive and leverage new technologies that expand visibility and proactive remediation beyond the corporate firewall into the first stage of an attack. Curtailing hacker reconnaissance by removing the data hackers need to plan and launch their attack is the best practice according to MITRE. 

Get ahead of regulations. Federal regulators are also coming upstream of the attack and have signaled a shift with new SEC disclosure guidance, which requires companies to disclose cybersecurity incidents sooner. Specifically, one key aspect of the new rule touches on “…whether the [company] has remediated or is currently remediating the incident.” New technologies that emulate threat actor reconnaissance can make cyber defenders proactive protectors of an organization’s employees, contractors, and customers long before problems escalate to front page news. These new technologies allow companies to remediate risk at the reconnaissance stage of the attack—an entirely new technology advantage for cyber defenders. 

Every single attack begins with research. Removing the data that hackers need to connect their attack plans to their human targets is the first and best step for companies who want to avoid costly breaches, damaging headlines, and stock price shocks.

Think Like a Hacker to Stop Attacks Before They Strike

By Matt Polak, CEO of Picnic

Cyber threat intelligence indicates that there is a high probability of digital retaliation against Western companies and governments that have supported Ukraine or distanced from Russia. Russia has validated this intelligence and their cyberwar strategy is evident: they harvest personally identifiable information (PII) about individuals and use it to power social engineering schemes to conduct attack and compromise campaigns that cause damage, collect intelligence, and generate income.

Organizations that have cut (or iced) ties with Russia, or those supporting Ukraine, are most likely to be the direct targets of Russian cyber aggression and retaliation. There are three things you should know about how threat actors like Russia operate: 

  1. Their #1 attack vector is social engineering.
  2. Their #1 target is high-value employees.
  3. Every attack begins with reconnaissance of public data footprints (i.e., OSINT data).

Unfortunately, existing controls are not likely to stop sophisticated social engineering attacks: training doesn’t work (people can’t be trained to spot these well crafted attacks), and technical controls like mail gateways and endpoint protection can be defeated with staged operations that identify (to evade) such technical controls.

In addition to the #shieldsup activities that are ongoing, below are some simple steps companies concerned about retaliation should take immediately.

What Should You Do

  1. Embrace the attacker’s mindset
  2. Identify your targets
  3. Remediate
  4. Repeat

1. Embrace the Attacker’s Mindset

Start by approaching this problem as the attacker. Ask yourself some key questions:

  • What systems would I want to gain access to?
  • What security controls, if exploited, would lead to catastrophic damage?
  • Who has access—either to the systems themselves or to the controls?
  • Who do you think would make the best target if you were the attacker? Why?

This last question is key and leads into the next activity: identify your targets.

2. Identify Your Targets

Make a list of your people as follows:

  • Group 1: People (probably your C-Suite and Board) whose personal brands and reputations are intertwined with your company’s brand and reputation.
  • Group 2: People who work directly with and support “Group #1”
  • Group 3: People with privileged access to your “crown jewels”
  • Group 4: People who work directly with and support “Group 3”
  • Group 5: If not already considered, the people who have privileged access to your organization’s security controls
  • Group 6: People who work directly with and support “Group 5”

I recommend putting these people into a spreadsheet for simple management, since you’ll want to capture some additional information on each one.

First, for person in each group:

  1. Add their LinkedIn profile (assuming they have one) to your spreadsheet
  2. Add their work and personal (if available) emails to the spreadsheet

Create a few columns on which you can track some basic data about each person with a simple Yes or No.

For their LinkedIn profile:

  • Does the person list a specific geography where they are located?
  • Does the person list anything in their profile that would suggest they would be an attractive target? Words like “administrator” or listing technologies or processes they are responsible for are dead giveaways.
  • Does the person list any contact information on the page?

For their work and personal emails:

  • Run through whatever breach repos (sites on the public, deep, and dark web where people’s usernames, passwords, and other personal information are stored and sold) you have access to and denote the quantity (as a count) of cleartext credentials available for each person.

When you are done, your spreadsheet should look something like this, sorted by seniority:

You can use some basic approaches to analyze this kind of data that leverages your knowledge of your company and its security practices, as well as the questions you asked yourself upfront when you thought like the attacker.

For example, as seen above, you might decide that people with the most amount of breaches in their work emails are important to triage first. In this view, the EA to the CEO is most likely to be targeted, so you might increase sandboxing for their account, have a direct 1:1 security coaching session with them, and make some reasonable requests to modify personal data to neutralize oversharing in social media. At a minimum, you should make sure that none of the cleartext credentials you found are being used in your company’s infrastructure, and ideally not used in an employee’s personal life. After all, attackers want to find the easiest path in, and it’s usually smooth sailing into unmonitored personal email and interconnected social media.

If you want to apply more analysis, you could associate a score of 1 point with any “Y” and weight everything equally. Doing so would yield a target list that looks quite different and makes your RDP Admin (yikes!) the #1 target for attack:

What’s equally valuable about this exercise is knowing who is not the most likely to attack. Maybe your gut instinct told you that your Security Tools Admin was likely your top target, but your quick analysis shows this person would be difficult to target, which would de-prioritize them in the eyes of an attacker.

Organizations have limited human analyst resources capable of solving problems that computers can’t solve, so knowing where to invest valuable staff resources is critically important in our current elevated threat environment.

There are many approaches that can yield valuable insight into how to secure your organization based on the view of the attacker. Remember, the way the attacker prioritizes their targets is based on reconnaissance of public data. Seniority is a useful metric, but it’s only one consideration. Oftentimes it is those people who are accessible rather than valuable who are the first line of attack for hackers who seek to leverage credential escalation and lateral movement. For example, the executive assistant to the CTO could be easily overlooked by an internal security organization, but someone in this role likely has shared access to certain systems that are sensitive, and therefore would likely be a prime target for an attacker.

3. Remediate

Now that you know who is most likely at risk, we recommend a quick scrub of OSINT data to make your team harder to target. In order of priority:

  1. Passwords. Confirm that all cleartext credentials are not in use and ideally banned from your systems and also ask employees to confirm they are not using these credentials either.
  2. LinkedIn. Go back to the list of words or phrases that powered your evaluation of LinkedIn. Send a quick email to your team asking them to change or remove these words with an explanation as to why. (see “resources” below for a sample communication)
  3. Data Brokers. Find and remove data brokers, which are an easy source for threat actors looking for PII on your employees. To do this, run a series of Google searches for the people in your list such as: “Full Name” + “work email”; “Full Name” + “personal email”; and “Full Name” + “home address”. Results will commonly include data brokers such as Whitepages, Spokeo, MyLife, and ZoomInfo. These data broker sites support removal requests, though the process can take time and is not uniform. If you want help with this, please contact me or comment.

4. Repeat

This type of exercise should be run continuously in good times and in bad. Digital footprints and employee populations are in constant flux, and so are attacker motives and methods. Building capacity for this type of capability will help build a security culture and create good operational security practices that should be the backbone of any security strategy.

Remember, hackers scout your organization to find an easy way in so they can compromise your people, your company, and your brand (in that order).

Picnic solves this problem at scale, so if you want to learn more about how to come upstream of the attack to stop hackers, please get in touch with us to schedule a demo.

Resources

After reducing the attack surface of the human, the next step would be to consider something like what has been proposed by Krebs Stamos Group, who provided helpful advice for those exiting the Russian market (or icing) ties with Russian connected organizations.

Sample Communication

[EMPLOYEE],

In light of [COMPANY’s] position in the global market and recent actions with respect to Russia, we conducted a threat assessment to identify ways to protect our highly valued employees like you from hackers who might retaliate against [COMPANY].

Hackers are targeting the personal lives of employees to gain access to company systems, so it’s important we take this threat seriously for both the company and you.

Based on the threat assessment we conducted, we are asking employees with the following information in their LinkedIn profiles to change or remove it.

Please remove the following references:

  • System Name 1
  • System Name 2
  • System Name 3

We believe that by removing these references it will make you less likely to be the target of malicious activity, which will make you safer online both at work and home.

This small change will make a big difference for you and your colleagues.

Thank you for your help,
[NAME]

Social engineering: Opportunity makes the thief

It is understandable that, when cybercrime happens to you, you can feel like you were targeted. And you certainly might be correct. However, more often than not, you weren’t originally the target at all. You just provided the best opportunity to the criminal. In most cases, social engineering involves an opportunistic attack that doesn’t – initially – target anyone in particular. Instead, attackers search broadly for weaknesses or vulnerabilities that they can use to mount a more in-depth attack. If they snare a victim in their net, they can then go to work.

It’s nothing personal

Unwanted messages and calls bombard nearly all of us on a regular basis. For most, these solicitations via junk mail, spam email and robocalls are just incredibly annoying – even inducing a bit of eyerolling. Most of the time, we simply hit ignore, mark as spam, delete or toss junk mail in the rubbish knowing that these messages are most likely so-called mass-market scams. Many people are often surprised by the amount of junk or spam they receive, especially because so many of the scams are so obviously illegitimate. But the reason you still get emails from a Nigerian prince offering cash out of the blue in exchange for something is because people continue to fall for such stories. Not huge numbers, but a few. And that’s all it takes to make a profit.

Opportunist attacks are not personalized to their victims and are usually sent to masses of people at the same time. They are akin to drift netters, casting their nets “out there” – whether it’s ransomware, spyware or spam – and see what comes back. The aim is to lure and trick an unsuspecting victim to elicit as much information as possible using SMS, email, WhatsApp and other messaging services, or phone calls. Their motives are primarily for financial gain. They just want money. They don’t have a vendetta against a particular person or company. It’s a virtually anonymous process.

Phishing scams: Opportunity makes the thief

The Nigerian prince story is on the lower end of the scale in terms of a convincing narrative. However, the grammar errors and simplicity in these attacks are actually intentional as they are serving as a filter. They are filtering the “smart” responders out with the goal of refining their list, allowing them to more strategically target their victims. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you got the email in the first place? Spam may be a reality, but you are probably getting unwanted attention because you have a wide personal “attack surface.”

Our digital footprint is more public than we would ever imagine. Every time we perform an online action, there is a chance we are contributing to the expansion of our digital footprint. So, while you and I might be aware that the Nigerian princes of the world are not genuine – more sophisticated and successful attacks are also in circulation. If you have a large and messy digital footprint, you are putting yourself on the opportunist radar and are in line to receive more refined and authentic looking queries.

Since cybercriminals are continuously devising clever ways to dupe us in our personal lives, it is just as easy to hoodwink employees into handing over valuable company data. In fact, according to Verizon’s Data Breach Digest 74% of organizations in the United States have been a victim of a successful phishing attack. Fraudsters know that the way to make a quick buck isn’t to spend months attempting to breach an organization’s security, it’s simply to ask nicely for the information they want so they can walk right through the front door.

Opportunity amid a pandemic

With social engineering opportunists tending to take advantage and capitalize on vulnerabilities exposed, the pandemic created ideal conditions to exploit businesses and corporations. In less than a month into the onslaught of the pandemic, phishing emails spiked by over 600% as attackers looked to capitalize on the stress and uncertainty generated by Covid-19. Businesses that were forced to work remotely became more susceptible to opportunists. The pandemic changed the attack surface, Researchers said,“… security protocols have completely changed – firewalls, DLP, and network monitoring are no longer valid. Attackers now have far more access points to probe or exploit, with little-to-no security oversight.”

To mitigate risk, focus on both threat and vulnerability

The standard corporate security structure is optimized to handle specific, targeted attacks on corporate assets. Unfortunately, social engineering is often overlooked because of the very non-specific nature of it. Attack by opportunity only requires unwitting cooperation by an employee who was not specifically targeted but self-selected simply by clicking on a link.

Social engineering may even be more dangerous in our pandemic-driven distributed work environments. Corporate and personal spheres overlap more than ever and can provide social engineer opportunists more footholds into our confidential lives – both private and corporate. Both individuals and corporate security leaders will do well to shift greater focus on vulnerability reduction to provide less opportunity to social engineers.

Ransomware: Stealing your data for fun and profit

Ransomware is a form of malicious cyberattack that uses malware to encrypt the files and data on your computer or mobile devices. As the name suggests, the cyber-criminals behind the malware then make demands for a ransom in order to release your data or access to your data.

Typically, you will be given instructions for payment and will in return be given a decryption key. The ransom amount may range from a couple of hundred to thousands of dollars, though you will most likely have to pay the cyber-fraudsters in cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin.

3 Types of Ransomware

Ransomware attacks range from a mild to very serious. Here are the three types most often encountered:

Scareware

Contrary to its name, Scareware may be the least scary of the three. It involves a tech support cyber-scam via rogue security software. In this scenario, you may see a pop-up message on your screen claiming the security software has detected malware on your device and you can only get rid of it if you pay a fee.

If you do not pay, they will continue to bombard you with the same pop-up. But annoyance is the extent of the threat. Your files and device are absolutely safe and unaffected.

Note that legitimate cyber-security software will never solicit its users in this way. Real security systems don’t charge you on a per threat basis. They would never ask you for any payment to remove a ransomware infection. Afterall, you already paid them when you purchased the software. And logically speaking, if you never bought the software, how could it detect an infection on your device?

Screen Lockers

More of a real threat than scareware, screen lockers, can lock you out of your PC entirely. If you restart your computer, you may see a bogus, full screen United States Department of Justice or FBI seal with a message.

The message states that “they” have detected some sort of illegal activity on your computer, and you must pay the penalty fine. It should go without saying that neither the FBI nor any other government entity will lock you out of your device and/or demand money to compensate for illegal activity. Real suspects of crimes, whether perpetrated online or not, will always be prosecuted through legal channels.

Encrypting Ransomware

Unlike the other two, this ransomware mimics real, offline ransoms. In this scenario, cybercriminals snatch your files, encrypt them, and demand you pay a ransom if you wish ever to see your data again.

What makes this variation of ransomware attack so dangerous is once the cyber-fraudsters take your files, no security or system can really restore them. In theory, abiding by the ransom demands will return you data, but there are no guarantees. If they have your data and your money, you don’t have much leverage over them anymore. You can only hope these criminals are true to their word. It’s not a good bet.

How does Ransomware Work?

One of the most common methods to deliver ransomware is via a phishing scam. This is an attack when ransomware comes as an attachment within an email masquerading as a trusted source. Once you download the attachment, the ransomware takes over your computer. For example, NotPetya exploits loopholes in the system’s security to infect it. Some ransomware attachments come with social engineering tools to trick you into allowing them administrative access.

There are several actions ransomware might perform but the most common of them is to encrypt some or all of your files. You will get a message on your screen that your files got encrypted, and you can only decrypt them once you send an untraceable payment via cryptocurrency, usually Bitcoin. The only thing that can decrypt data is a mathematical key – that is in the possession of the cyber-criminal.

Another variation of ransomware attack is known as doxware or leakware. In this form of attack, the hacker will threaten to publically release sensitive data found on your hard drive unless you pay the ransom money. This is less common purely because finding sensitive data is often difficult and labor-intensive for cybercriminals.

Who Can Be a Ransomware Target?

Ransomware attackers choose the victims (individuals or companies) they target using several ways. The combination of the right victim and the loosest security will often drive a criminal’s decision.

For example, cyber-hackers may target universities or colleges because these institutions tend to deploy smaller security protocols. Additionally, they have disparate users relying on a lot of file sharing, making it easier for attackers to penetrate the defenses.

In other instances, some large corporations of organizations are tempting targets as they might be more likely to pay a ransom. For example, medical facilities and government agencies often require immediate access to their systems and files and can’t operate without access to their data.

Law firms and other agencies dealing with sensitive data will be more willing to pay to cover up the news of the ransomware attack on their network and database. These are also the organizations more prone to leakware attacks due to the sensitivity of information and data they carry.

However, even if you don’t fit any of the above categories, do not delude yourself. Some ransomware attacks are automatic and spread randomly without discrimination.

In Case You Are under Ransomware Attack

If you ever fall prey to a ransomware attack, the number one rule to remember is “Never Pay the Ransom.” This is also endorsed advice by the FBI. If you pay, all it is going to do is encourage these cyber-fraudsters to launch further attacks against you or others.

Does that mean you are stuck? Yes and No. You may still be able to decrypt or retrieve some of your infected files using free decryptors such as Kaspersky. However, many ransomware attacks use sophisticated and advanced encryption algorithms that fall outside of available decryptors. Even worse, using a wrong decryption script may further encrypt your files. Pay close attention to the ransomware message and seek an IT/security expert’s advice on what should be your next step or course of action.

An alternate method may be to download security software known for remediation. It will scan your computer to remove the ransomware threat. It is only a partial solution as this will clean up your system from all infections, but you may not be able to recover your locked or lost files.

A screen-locking ransomware attack often leaves little choice other than full system restoration. If this happens, you can always try scanning your computer using a USB drive or a bootable CD.

To thwart a ransomware attack in action, stay extremely vigilant. If your computer is slowing down for no apparent reason, disconnect it from the Internet and shut it down. Once you re-boot your computer (still offline), the malware will not be able to receive or send any commands from its control server. Without a channel to extract payment or a key for encryption, the ransomware infection may stay idle. At this point, download and/or install security software and run a full computer scan to quarantine the threat.

Specific Steps for Ransomware Removal

In case your computer comes under a ransomware attack, you must regain access and control of your device. Here are some simple steps you must follow, depending on whether you use Windows, MacOS, or a mobile device.

Windows 10 Users

  • Reboot your PC in safe mode
  • Install anti-malware software
  • Scan your system to detect the ransomware file
  • Restore your system to a previous state

MacOS

In the past, the rumor was that Macs were “unhackable” due to their architecture. Sadly, this is not the case. Cyber-criminals dropped the first ransomware bomb on MacOS in 2016, known as KeRanger. This ransomware infected an app known as Transmission that, and once launched, copied the malicious files which kept running covertly in the background. After three days of this stealth operation, it encrypted the user’s files.

Apple did come up with a solution to this issue known as XProtect. The lesson learned was that Mac ransomware is not theoretical anymore. However, Mac users are reliant on Apple to come up with solutions if problems occur.

Mobile Ransomware

It was not until the popularity of CryptoLocker in 2014 that ransomware became a common threat for mobile devices. Apps are the common delivery method for malware on phones. Typical mobile ransomware attacks display a message that your smartphone has been locked due to illegal activity and you will have to pay to unlock your device. In case you fall prey to such malware, you must boot your smartphone in safe mode and delete the malicious app to retrieve control.

How to Prevent Ransomware?

You can take several defensive measures that not only help prevent ransomware attacks but other social engineering attacks as well.

  • Keep the security software of your computer’s operating system up-to-date and patched. This simple practice will resolve many vulnerabilities and exploitations.
  • Do not install any software or grant it any administrative rights unless you are sure about what it does with those privileges.
  • Install an antivirus program to detect malicious programs (and apps) in real-time. A good antivirus may also offer you a whitelist feature (where you can allow rights to certain trusted software for automatic execution) to prevent unauthorized software from auto-execution in the first place.
  • Last but not least, back up your files automatically and frequently (preferably in a cloud). It won’t prevent a ransomware attack but it can control the damage and prevent permanent loss of your files.

In any event, in case you are not a tech-savvy individual or company, seek advice from IT and cyber-security experts in your locale. The best experts are up-to-date with current, commonly active ransomware as well as security software you should be using.

A closer look at phishing attacks

Cyber fraud is lurking everywhere across the internet and one of the most effective tactics on victims is “phishing.” Phishing is a term for the use of disguised and misleading emails, text, and instant messages to trick email recipients into believing that they are receiving a message from a trusted source. By posing as a bank, employer, or government authority, the attackers steal personal information and data such as login credentials, Social Security, credit card details, etc.

Phishing attacks can seem innocuous on the surface. An attack might look like a simple email message from the recipient’s company asking them to click on the link or download an attachment. However, when the link is clicked, the user is taken to a fake website where they are asked to take some action, like entering their credentials. Often the “ask” is the download of an innocent looking file which may actually install spyware or malware on their computer.

History and prevalence

Phishing is not a new phenomenon. One of the oldest and most common types of cyberattack, it can be traced back to the 1990s. Over time, users may have become savvier, but phishing messages have become more sophisticated and authentic in presentation. According to Verizon’s Data Breach Report, almost one-third of all data breaches in 2019 were a result of phishing attacks. Ultimately, its proliferation is the result of human trust – something that can be a challenge to firewall.

Phishing attack intent

Most commonly, an attacker will replicate an email that will look like an authentic email from a trusted source. The more convincing the disguise, the more likely they are to succeed. In tandem, the attacker will set up website landing pages that mimic a website that the victim trusts.

The intent is to get recipients of their messages to do one of two things:

Surrender sensitive information

Your personal information is literally the key to riches for phishing criminals. In many cases, attackers simply want your money. How do they get it? They lure you to a false landing page that looks like something your bank may host. If you “sign in” to your bank account in this case, you are really just handing over your bank account credentials to the attacker. Once they have them, it’s game over. They can go directly to your real account and empty it immediately. Millions of such emails are sent annually to would-be victims.

Keep in mind, it not always just about money from private citizens. The same process is often used on the corporate level to acquire secure documents – ideas, financial documentation, legal documentation, product specifications, etc.

Download malware

Malware is all about taking control of the host’s computer for nefarious purposes. And Phishing is the preferred method for malware infections.

A typical malware injection scenario may resemble the following path: The Phishing attacker imitates a company’s HR department and asks the targeted recipient to download an important form or document, such as a job seeker’s resume. This attachment is typically a zip file or a Microsoft Word document with embedded malicious code. In most cases this will be ransomware, code that takes control of the victim’s computer in some debilitating fashion until the users pays the hackers to unlock it. According to a report, 93% of phishing attacks had ransomware attachments.

Types of phishing attacks

There are many types of phishing attacks, and they all have colorful names – but they are all dangerous. Some of the most common:

Spear phishing

Whereas most Phishing targets a wide range of victims, Spear phishing is focused on defrauding a specific individual. Metaphorically, instead of casting a net or dropping a hook to see who takes the bait, the attacker focuses the attack in a personalized way.

Often targeted victim information is gathered through social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. With this specific personal information, the attacker uses spoof email addresses and sends messages that appear to be coming from a trusted source, such as a friend, family member, employer or a co-worker.

For example, a spear-phishing fraudster may target an employee working in the finance department and pretend to be the department’s manager requesting the employee quickly transfer a large sum of money to an account.

Whale phishing

Whale phishing, also known as whaling, is a type of spear phishing that targets high-value individuals, company board members or CEOs. These targets have authority within their organization as well as access to important data.

Being an executive doesn’t mean you are not vulnerable. Note that most board members are not full-time employees, so they often use their personal email addresses for official or business-related correspondences. Personal emails are more susceptible to phishing attacks because they may not provide the same protection offered by a corporate email system. While whaling is a more time-consuming and sophisticated activity than other cyberattacks, if successful, it can reap big rewards for hackers.

Clone phishing

Clone Phishing employs a higher degree of disguise as it uses the content of an actual, legitimate email that contained a link or an attachment and was previously delivered to the victims.

After the attackers create the clone email, they replace the link or attachment with a malicious version or source and send it using a spoofed email address, impersonating an original sender.

These clone phishing messages may claim to be an updated version of the original email or the company resending the original email.

Filter evasion

Here, cyber attackers use images instead of words to make these phishing messages harder to detect with anti-phishing filters. However, more sophisticated filters can identify and recover hidden text within a malicious image using optical character recognition (OCR).

Website forgery

Website forgery uses a JavaScript code to alter the website’s address bar to lead users to malicious websites. Attackers place an image of a legitimate URL over the fake website’s address bar.

Phishing attackers use potential flaws within trusted websites’ scripts against the victims. Such attacks are difficult for a common user to spot without a specialist’s help.

Covert redirect

Covert redirect is where a link appears to be legit but takes the victim to attackers’ website. Typically, victims get an error message during log-in and the site asks them to enter their username and password again.

This type of phishing attack may also redirect the victims to fake websites covertly using malicious browser extensions. Attentive users will notice the malicious URL will be slightly different from the trusted URL.

Voice phishing

Fake websites, fake messages, malicious links, and attachments are not the only phishing attacks plaguing us. Voice phishing uses fake caller IDs that appear legitimate. These calls will ask you to dial a number to discuss an issue related to your bank account. Once you dial the number, it will ask you to enter your card details, your account number and your PIN code to verify your identity. Once you do that, the phone disconnects, and the attackers have your details.

Tabnabbing

Tabnabbing is another technique that takes advantage of multiple open tabs in a victim’s browser. The technique is to open a fake web page silently on the already opened tab in a browser when the user tries to open a legitimate website. The user mistakenly falls for the fake page, considering it to be original, and end up handing out information to the hackers.

Protect yourself from phishing

The best way to protect yourself from phishing attacks is research. Google the terms above and, by looking at samples, familiarize yourself with the hallmarks of fraud, as well as how to verify that you are on a legitimate website.

Some quick tips:

  • Check website URLs for spelling mistakes, especially if the link is mentioned in an email asking for sensitive information.
  • Be cautious about the URL redirects. Links that send you to a different website than what you expected might be a phishing attack.
  • If you have any doubts that the email may not be from the original source, contact them to confirm if they have sent you any message whatsoever.
  • Do not post personal information, such as birthdays, home addresses, and phone numbers on social media. Always set your privacy settings to the highest level possible.

Be cautious

Phishing attacks are a common and ever-present threat. Keep your security tight and never share personal details over email, phone, or in a message. You never know when you are exposing yourself to cyber attackers out there.

How to spot a phishing email

Would a Company Send Me That?

We’ve all heard of a phishing email. If you haven’t heard of a phishing email, now is the time to familiarize yourself with this must-know threat lurking online. In this article, we’ll show you how to spot a phishing email and examples of common phishing emails.

What is Phishing?

Modern-day fraudsters attempting to obtain sensitive information from a person or organization by posing as another person or a company online is known as phishing. They might be after your user information, such as passwords or usernames, or credit card and banking information. Employers should also be concerned as fraudsters have been known to steal sensitive or damaging information from employees or gain control of an entire company’s software.

According to a report by Symantec, 96% of phishing scammers are focused on intelligence gathering.

Scammers are known to use the information gained through phishing for:

  • Identity theft
  • Intellectual property theft
  • Industrial or Government Espionage
  • Corporate Sabotage – ex. stealing patent secrets
  • A total takeover of a website or online controls
  • Stealing money

How Does Phishing Work?

We frequently receive emails from our banks, our work IT administrators, or a trusted social media site. The email might ask for details, to log in with a username and password, or simply to click a link. Phishing is when a scammer sends you one of these emails in an effort to steal your information or gain access to your network. The perpetrator is setting a trap for users by pretending to be an authority figure, a legal entity or a company you recognize.  

It’s a lot like fishing, where an angler casts bait on the hook in the river. Eventually, a fish falls for the trap and bites on the bait. Fraudsters lure you to what seems like a legit request from a trustworthy source and wait for you to click on it. 

Instead of ending up at the end of a fishing pole, phishing victims may find themselves in a damaging situation. The consequences of a phishing attack could be the installation of malware on your computer or mobile phone or your phone or computer being frozen due to ransomware. One of the worst outcomes is your personal and sensitive information being exposed to the fraudulent entity. 

The results of phishing can be very devastating, whether you are an individual or a company. It may enable the fraudulent party to steal your bank account credentials, credit card details, and other sensitive information such as your driver’s license and social security numbers. This could lead to unauthorized purchases, identity theft, and money stolen from your bank account. 

According to the Data Breach Investigation from Verizon, 70% of online espionage was due to Phishing.

All of this might seem scary and treacherous but once you know the signs of a phishing email, you will be able to protect yourself and your employees.

Types of Phishing Emails

There are various ways impersonators and fraudsters attempt to make phishing look like a request from a company or person you trust. There are three major types of phishing. 

Email Phishing

Like fishermen casting a wide net hoping to catch the most fish possible, email phishing is all about numbers.  

An attacker sends out a fraudulent email or a message to thousands of people. Even if a small percentage of people end up clicking a link or providing their user information, an online imposter could end up with a significant amount of money and information. 

Scammers go to extreme lengths to make their emails and messages look legit. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a real email and a phishing attempt unless you look closely. Fraudsters will use the same taglines, same logos, and even signatures to mimic the authentic organization. Even the links within the email appear to be from the company they are impersonating.

Did you know that over 7,700 companies get attacked by an email scam every month? According to research, approximately 56% of all the emails you receive are spam, which includes phishing and other email scams. 

Spear Phishing

Spear phishing is a more focused attack aimed towards a specific organization or a person.

It is probably the most sophisticated form of phishing, where the impersonator does a lot of research on their part to know about the company or an individual.

To target individuals, they may look at your online habits, shopping history, websites you visit frequently, and your social media. 

For a company phishing email, they may look into your websites, social media, employees, financial commitments, and even the company structure for useful information. The perpetrator will send out an email to the most relevant employee for a project. An example phishing email might look like an email sent to the project supervisor of a specific campaign.  

The email will appear as if it was sent from the organization; it will feature the company’s logo, images, the same font, and might even have a signature from a higher-up at the company. The email will request the project supervisor to click on the enclosed invoice, which is password-protected and can only be open if the accounts manager enters his credentials. The attacker will then use this information to gain full access to the company’s network for more sensitive information and financial gains. 

According to the Symantec Internet Security Report, 71.4% of targeted attacks used spear-phishing techniques. 

Whaling

Whaling is a phishing technique that takes it up a notch. In these cases, attackers target senior management or people in power.

The subject and content of these phishing emails will be more in-line with something only a senior member in a company’s hierarchy has an authority to deal with, for example, a legal notice threatening for a penalty, or a customer’s complaint. 

Other forms of Phishing

There are other known forms of phishing, such as website forgery, where impersonators go through the hassle of actually creating a duplicate website. The cloned website looks exactly like the original, except if you look closely, the website link will be slightly different from the original. For example, a bank clone website may have the address www.ebay.shopping.com.

Similarly, Covert Redirect is another method, where the phishing email may have a link that looks legit. However, once you click on it, it will take you to the attacker’s website.

Voice phishing is more linked to the mobile world. For example, you may receive an email or a message that appears to be from your bank asking you to call to resolve an urgent matter. Once you dial the number, they will ask you to enter your name and account number and use that information for nefarious purposes.

How do I Spot a Phishing Email?

It is of utmost importance that you know how to recognize the signs of a phishing email. This will prevent you from falling for a company phishing email or one targeting individuals.

Are you sure that the email you received from your bank is actually from your bank? Or is it just one of the myriads of phishing emails floating in the sea of the World Wide Web? It is time you learn some techniques on how to spot a phishing email. 

A Legit Email will Never Request Your Personal Information

Always remember no matter how professional or authentic an email may look, no legitimate organization will ask you to offer up your bank account number, credit card details, or social security number. If you receive an email that requests your account information, consider it a phishing email. This email will ask you to enter your credentials by either clicking on an attachment or a link. This alone is a big indicator that it is a phishing attempt. 

It is All in the Name

Legitimate business partners and companies such as your bank, eBay, PayPal, etc. will always address you by your name in an email such as Dear Mr. /Ms. (your name). Whereas, a phishing email is sent out to thousands, so it will use a generic salutation such as “Dear User” or “Dear Valued Customer,” etc. Some perpetrators might leave the salutation out altogether, hoping that you would not notice. Take a second to look closer and spot this common sign of a phishing email.

Domain Emails Should Match the Address

You may notice the familiar name of your bank account manager, or of a company colleague and you might do what the email asks you to. Remember to hover your mouse over the “from” address in your email. This will reveal the email address it is sent from. If it looks dodgy, then it actually is. 

A legitimate company will have the domain address that matches their website. For example, an email from PayPal will have [email protected], not [email protected]. Get in the habit of checking the e-mail address.  

Watch for Spelling Mistakes

It might be easy to laugh at or overlook silly spelling or grammar mistakes, but these errors are the easiest way to weed out the phishing attempt sitting in your inbox. Reputable companies make the effort to appear professional and have pride in the content sent to their clientele. Therefore, legitimate communication from companies won’t feature spelling errors.

Be wary of emails featuring frequent mistakes. Hackers are hoping that you don’t take the time to read an email carefully and will miss a spelling error or two and follow a link or provide your information.

Clicks versus a Call

Phishing emails will often ask you to click a website link. A reputable company will provide many avenues for you to contact them or access your information. Hackers will force you to visit their fraudulent website. Visiting fraudulent websites or following links in phishing emails can lead to installing a virus or malware on your system.

If a company really wants to speak with you, they will request you call a secure phone number or provide the information in an email. 

Beware Unsolicited Attachments

Why would your bank or any other company send you a word file or a photo as an e-mail attachment? They wouldn’t and this is probably one of the most effective and harmful tools in a hacker’s arsenal. If you get an unsolicited email with an attachment, just report it or delete it without clicking on anything.

Confirm Legitimate URLs

Appearances can be deceiving, and phishing emails are no exception. If you get a phishing email with a seemingly legitimate link, chances are it will direct you somewhere fraudulent. Always question the legitimacy of the link in question. Don’t click the link. Hover your mouse over the link to reveal where the link intends to take you.  

If the link appearing in the URL seems fishy or does not match the website you’re expecting, it is a phishing attempt. A secure and authentic link will begin with https://.

According to APWG, over a quarter of a million phishing websites were reported in the 3rd Quarter of 2019 alone.

Ways to Protect Yourself

After seeing some example phishing emails and the tactics scammers use, you should feel prepared to spot a phishing email. It is essential to know how to safeguard yourself or your business against phishing. It’s important to be vigilant and to pay attention to the details.

If you get an email with a suspicious attachment or asking you to provide some personal information, think before you react. Use common sense and logic to identify a phishing email.

In addition to the knowledge and skills you have, you can increase your security with reliable internet tools and features. It’s important to choose what you use for your security wisely and use multiple tools if possible.  

2FA or Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is the most effective way to counter phishing scams. Many service providers are asking users to upgrade to 2FA. Apple and Google users may have already been prompted to upgrade to two-factor authentication.

Two-factor authentication is based on two separate pieces of information to verify the legitimacy of the user. The first piece of information will be your username and password, and the second can be a security question or a code sent to you separately.

Many banks apply this to avoid any unauthorized purchase or money theft. Once you login to the account using your login credentials, your bank will send either a text message or email a one-time passcode. This passcode needs to be entered into the webpage or app to authenticate that it is really you making a transaction. 

Even though this sounds like a hassle, it can protect you or your company in the face of a phishing attack.

If you or a your employee end up falling for the phishing attack and give out your login credentials, they will be safe because the attacker will not be able to get past the second security barrier because the additional log-in information will be sent to your email or phone, not the hacker’s. 

Make sure to opt for 2FA, or if you are a company, it in your best interest to implement this security feature into your current IT infrastructure. 

Password Management 

It’s in your organization’s interest to use a strict password management policy. Create a policy that passwords must contain a combination of various alphabets, numbers, and special characters and that passwords must change frequently. Old passwords should be not reused.

As an individual, you should practice the same strategy. Change your password with regular intervals and do not use older passwords. 

Security Software

Install security software on your computer and smartphone. Security software notifies you about a potentially harmful emails and attachments that may contain malware, ransomware, or a virus. 

Controlled Access

In environments like schools and colleges, a policy that states “Do Not Click on External Links” must be enforced. Not only does it save children from phishing scams but also from their exposure to other harmful material. 

What If I Have Already Clicked On a Phishing Link?

You may have been busy or distracted. You may have been in a hurry and clicked a malicious link by mistake. Do not panic; follow these steps to prevent further damage. 

  • Disconnect your device
  • Back up Your Files
  • Scan your laptop or mobile phone device for malware
  • Change your Passwords
  • Report the attempted phishing attack to your local law enforcement agency’s cybercrime division
  • And most importantly, be careful in the future. 

Phishing Projection: 2021 and Beyond

The level of sophistication in phishing attacks will increase in the future. As technology changes and evolves, human error will always be something for hackers to exploit as they create more sophisticated phishing attacks.

The more technologically advanced society becomes, the more connected society becomes. Phishing and other malicious attempts by hackers are not to be taken lightly. Stay vigilant and pay attention to what you get in your inbox to spot a phishing email.