Raising awareness quickly: A brief overview on phishing

In a series of posts for National Cyber Security Awareness Month, Rapid7 is releasing a set of easily emailed user awareness notes. With permission, and because we fully support the notion of raising awareness when it comes to security topics, CSO has published the letter below.

Phishing is a problem. A type of social engineering, phishing starts on the premise of a lie, and use various methods, such as fear or curiosity, in order to get the target to do something. This something can be as simple as following a link, opening an attachment, sharing information, or sometimes it's all of the above. These types of attacks usually originate in email, but there have been cases as of late where phone calls are used.

[3 steps to identify a potentional phishing email]

What follows is a simple, easily copied primer on the basics of phishing that can be shared with the users in your organization. Plainly written, the message can be augmented in order to fit the organization's policies or to add specific examples that have been seen by the IT team.

What is phishing?

Phishing is basically someone trying to get you to do something or tell them something through email that enables them to compromise you in some way. Much as the name suggests, this typically works by dangling some kind of bait in front of you. One of the most famous examples of phishing is the Nigerian 419 scams which lured people into giving their bank information with the promise of huge riches.

Other kinds of phishing emails try to convince you to open an attachment or click on a link. These can lead to your computer (or whatever device you read the email on) becoming infected with something nasty. Or it could lead you to unknowingly give a criminal your security credentials for a site. For example, say you receive an email from LinkedIn saying someone wants to connect with you. You click on the link and you get the login page for LinkedIn. Pop your password in and land on the page you expected to be sent to. Everything looks normal and you have no idea that you just gave your LinkedIn password to a criminal.

Phishing that specifically targets you is called "spear phishing." This means the attacker used information they had learned about you -- for example from calling the switchboard or looking at your social networking profiles and interactions -- and then created an email specifically designed to look highly plausible to you. These emails can be very sophisticated and hard to spot. Why would someone want to target you in this way? Well, perhaps they're actually targeting the organization you work for and you provide a convenient foot-in-the-door. Or perhaps they're ultimately after someone in your network. You never know how tempting a target you might represent to an attacker, so it's important to be vigilant.

How can you protect yourself?

Try to remember that lurking behind every innocent-looking email could be a giant shark waiting to make its move. This is true whether it's work or personal email, so you must treat every email with a basic level of caution.

Here are some tips to get you started:

-- Protect your information

Do not send sensitive information such as bank details, social security number, etc. over email. If you really need to, make sure you know who you are sending it to and start a new email rather than replying to a thread. Check the email address carefully.

-- Check the address

Be mindful of who is emailing you. Check email addresses for accuracy and look for signs of suspicious activity, for example if an email is not in the format you'd expect or a name appears to be spelt incorrectly. Email addresses made up of seemingly random combinations of letters and numbers may also be suspicious.

[A firsthand look at why user awareness training works]

-- Don't click on links

Hover over links WITHOUT CLICKING -- the destination will show in the bottom left of your screen and you can see whether it looks right. If in doubt, Google the address you need rather than clicking on a link.

-- Don't open attachments

Treat any attachment that you didn't request as highly suspect. Send to IT and security team if you're not sure whether its safe and they will check it out for you.

-- Check with IT / Security

If in doubt, email your IT and security team. They will let you know whether something is safe to open or click on. It's better to be safe than sorry.

This stuff isn't complicated, but it is incredibly easy to get caught out by a well-crafted spear phishing campaign. Given the sheer amount of email we all receive every day, it's tough to remember to be vigilant. So remember that shark lurking behind you!

This story, "Raising awareness quickly: A brief overview on phishing" was originally published by CSO.

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