How to Spot A Phishing Email

December 2, 2021

The phishing email is one of the oldest and most successful types of cyberattacks. Attackers have long used phishing as a common attack vector to steal sensitive information or credentials from their victims. While most phishing emails are relatively simple to spot, the number of successful attacks has grown in recent years.

All businesses need to know how to recognize a phishing email so they can educate their employees and protect their operations. This guide will discuss how to spot a phishing email and what to do if you receive one.

What is Phishing?

The concept of phishing is simple: an email designed to convince the recipient to perform a specific action that gives attackers access to personal information. Phishing emails may encourage the person to click on a link, download an attachment, or provide their login credentials to their email account or a similar service. The goal is to steal sensitive information in one way or another.

Over the years, people have struggled to identify phishing emails as they have become more sophisticated. Social engineering, in particular, has played a devastating role in breaking through people’s defenses, particularly as attackers become more sophisticated in their schemes.

The Importance of Spotting Phishing Emails

Businesses are increasingly investing in educating employees on how to spot phishing emails, building a strong defense on the frontline. This is an investment in securtiy awareness training and similar tools can pay dividends down the line by protecting an organization’s operations. Here are some of the reasons why business owners must teach their employees about how to detect phishing emails:

  • Growing Threat: Google identified more than two million phishing websites in 2020, representing a 19.9% increase from the previous year. One thing is clear from this information—the threat is growing.

  • Monetary Loss: Individuals and businesses alike are at risk of identity fraud due to phishing. Consumers lost $56 billion due to identity fraud in 2020 alone.

  • Business Disruption: Phishing can cause severe disruption to businesses when login credentials are stolen, particularly if cybercriminals use those credentials to launch additional attacks. This can lead to a negative customer experience and even halt operations entirely.

  • Compliance Penalties: Inappropriate measures put in place to defend against phishing attacks could lead to regulatory penalties, costing your business additional money beyond what is stolen by attackers.

  • Loss of Consumer Confidence: The general public has become increasingly aware of the risk of data theft. Successful phishing attacks could lead to a loss of consumer confidence in your brand, which has a direct impact on your bottom line.

Failure to identify phishing impacts every aspect of an organization. In the worst cases, it could even play a role in the failure of an organization.

Tips for Identifying Phishing Emails

Sophisticated phishing attacks are becoming better at evading traditional email filters and infiltrating inboxes. Knowing how to spot a phishing email can stop cyber attackers in their tracks. Here are some primary signs that indicate an email may not be legitimate.

  1. Urgent Action: Emails that make threats if the recipient does not take action immediately are common. An urgent email is designed to disrupt rational thought, induce panic, and prevent the recipient from analyzing the email before acting.

  2. Bad Writing: Poor spelling and bad grammar are the hallmarks of low-level phishing scams. Companies and high-powered figures typically have automatic spell-checking tools enabled by default, so keep an eye out for misspellings in an otherwise official-looking email.

  3. Unfamiliar Greetings: Most work colleagues greet each other informally in emails. If an email is overly formal or the tone doesn’t match with what’s considered the usual, it could be a phishing attack. Alternatively, if the email is too casual—particularly when appearing to come from a high-level executive or internal department—that could also be a sign of a phishing attack.

  4. Unfamiliar Links: Hover over any link in an email and check the URL. If there are inconsistencies, it’s almost certainly an attempted cyberattack. This is one of the simplest ways to identify a phishing attack.

  5. Attachments: Most companies share files via collaboration tools, such as OneDrive or Slack. Internal emails that come with attachments should always be treated with suspicion. In particular, .exe and .zip files should be quarantined as they’re most likely to be malicious.

How to Avoid Phishing Scams

Avoiding phishing scams is relatively easy, as tthe main premise is simply to stop and think before acting. Bad actors rely on individual employees to temporarily suspend their thought processes and complete the requested action. After all, all it takes is one slip for a catastrophe to occur. Follow these tips to avoid becoming the victim of a phishing scam:

  • Use Common Sense: This is the big one. Whenever an email is received, compare the tone, style, and type of request to previous communications. Never act on an unsolicited email without confirming its legitimacy first.

  • Slow Down: Avoid the pressure to react to any urgent requests, particularly if they seem different from your usual work. Pressure tactics are how many cyber attackers succeed.

  • Delete Suspicious Emails without Opening: Some email browsers have scripting enabled, which means you could get a virus simply from opening a suspicious email. If something doesn’t feel right, delete it without opening it.

  • Talk to Others: If the CEO is supposedly asking you to do something, talk to your manager to confirm the request.

  • Use the Phishing Button: Report any phishing attack to the relevant authority, typically through a phishing button located in your mailbox. Everyone should be aware of known phishing attempts, and reporting them to the Security Operations Center allows those in charge to deal with them in the right way.

Protecting Yourself from Phishing Emails

Knowing how to identify phishing emails is the first step to protecting yourself. Throughout your organization, everyone should be aware of how to spot phishing attacks, the basic steps to take, and how to reduce the likelihood of receiving these emails in the first place.

  1. Install Email Security that Detects Phishing: Native security controls in Microsoft or Google should detect most common phishing attempts. Additional security protections like an integrated cloud email security solution can provide additional protection and detect even the most advanced, socially-engineered phishing attempts.

  2. Update Your Anti-Virus Software: If you accidentally click on a suspicious link or download an unsolicited attachment, your antivirus software should be fully updated. In most cases, a cutting-edge antivirus program will prevent the infiltration of viruses and malware into your systems.

  3. Implement Multi-Factor Authentication: No confidential system should be able to be accessed with nothing more than a username and a password. Multi-factor authentication is one of the best security practices to adopt and is vital for defending against phishing attacks.

  4. Understand BYOD Risks: Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies present a potential security threat. Phishers often take advantage of these policies and capitalize on lax security measures. While BYOD can be acceptable, employers must carefully control access to company systems from third-party devices.

  5. Create an Alert System: Educating employees on how to detect phishing is essential, but more important is making sure everyone is aware of what to do if they spot an attack. If a targeted employee simply deletes a phishing email without reporting it, the attacker may target someone else within your organization instead.

How to Report Phishing Emails

Provide your employees with information on how to spot a phishing email and then show them how to report incidents. This should be a company-wide exercise reinforced regularly. Enact the permanent rule: “If you see something, say something.”

There should be a clear chain of command regarding who to report a phishing attack to, as well as an active database of known attacks. Even if the employee never clicked on a link or provided their credentials, the security team should be informed. This process is different for every organization, so make sure your employees know what to do.

A Fundamentally Different Approach to Security

Phishing is the most common attack vector in the world and is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Preparing your defenses and training your team to identify phishing attempts is key to limiting the chances of a successful breach occurring.

In addition, advanced email security platforms can provide the additional protection needed to block these attacks before they reach end users. An integrated solution like Abnormal can detect both broad-based phishing attacks that target thousands of people, and very specific spear-phishing attempts that target your most high-profile employees.

To learn more about how Abnormal stops phishing and other advanced attacks, request a demo today.

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