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How can I help protect my company from phishing attacks?

I’m sure you’ve seen them — emails or messages that sound alarming and ask you to act quickly. We live in a digital world that produces hundreds of messages and alerts every day. It’s often hard to determine the validity of a suspicious message or phishing email. Whether you are an administrator, or an end-user, it can be overwhelming to accurately identify a malicious message. When in doubt, here are some questions you should ask yourself:

Is the message from a legitimate sender?

Do I normally receive messages from this person?

If there’s a link, can I tell where it’s sending me?

Attackers continue to evolve their methods, and they’re highly educated on the defenses they come up against in the wild. They’ll craft messages that do not involve any traditional indicators of compromise, such as domains, IP address, or URL links. They’ll also start their attacks by sending messages as an initial lure to establish trust, before sending an email with altered invoice or one claiming to be a helpless employee attempting to get their payroll fixed.

Phishing is a socially-based attack type, one where the threat actors focus on human behavior. When these attacks target organizations, there are multiple levels of attack at play. One that focuses on behavioral patterns and workflow, and the other centers on the victim’s emotional boundaries, such as targeting their desire to help others. You see this pattern frequently in Business Email Compromise (BEC) attacks.

Below, we’ve placed an example of a lure, which will test the victim to see if there is a means to quickly establish trust. Here, the threat actor is pretending to be the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the victim’s organization. If the lure is successful, then the threat actor will progress the attack, and often request sensitive records or wire transfers. Notice that in the email headers, the person pretending to be the CFO is using a Gmail account, one that was likely created just for this attack. The message is brief, stresses importance and urgency, and requests assistance, playing on the victim’s workflow and desire to help an executive or someone with authority.

The example below is a simplified one, to be sure, but the elements are legitimate. Daily, emails like this hit the inboxes of organizations globally, and the attackers only need to locate a single victim to make their efforts payout.

Figure 1: An example of an Initial lure to establish trust

In the FBI / IC3 2021 Internet Crime Report, there were nearly 20,000 Business Email Compromise complaints filed, with an adjusted loss of nearly 2.4 billion dollars.  While spoofing the identity of an executive is certainly one way to conduct a BEC attack, the FBI says that threat actors have started leveraging the normality of hybrid-work to target meeting platforms to establish trust and conduct their crimes. When successful, the funds from the fraudulent wire transfers are moved to crypto wallets and the funds dispersed, making recovery harder.

So as an end user what can you do to protect your organization? Be mindful anytime you receive an urgent call to action, especially when the subject involves money. If your workflow means that you regularly receive these types of requests from the specific individual, verify their identity and the validity of the request using another channel of communication, such as in person or via phone. If you do validate their identity via the phone, take care to avoid calling any numbers listed in the email.

Cisco Secure Email helps stop these types of attacks by tracking user relationships and threat techniques. These techniques often include account takeover, spoofing and many more. Using an intent-based approach allows Secure Email to detect and classify business email compromises and other attacks, so administrators are empowered to take a risk-based approach to stopping these threats.

Find out more about how Cisco Secure Email can help keep your organization safe from phishing.

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