Cybersecurity Awareness Month: Fight the Phish!

According to the Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, phishing accounted for around 80% of all reported phishing attacks in 2019 and since the pandemic began in 2020 phishing attacks and associated scams have been thriving. In 2020, 74% of US organizations experienced a successful phishing attack.

Phishing attacks typically use emails or malicious websites – or both – to obtain sensitive information such as login credentials or to infect devices with malware and viruses. Phishing attacks involve a lure to get the recipient to take a certain action, such as clicking on a hyperlink in an email or opening a malicious email attachment. Email addresses, sender names, phone numbers, and website URLs are often spoofed to trick people into believing they are interacting with a familiar and trusted source.

The 2021 Cost of Phishing Study conducted by the Ponemon Institute/Proofpoint suggests the cost of phishing attacks has quadrupled over the past 6 years, with large U.S. firms now losing an average of $14.83 million a year to phishing attacks. An average-sized U.S. company employing 9,567 people, loses around 63,343 hours every year to phishing attacks, with the cost equating to around $1,500 per employee.

Phishing is the starting point of the costliest cyberattacks. In 2020, more than $1.8 billion was fraudulently obtained in Business Email Compromise (BEC) attacks, with the average cost of a BEC attack now $5.97 million. Phishing is often the starting point of ransomware attacks, which can have mitigation costs of the order of tens of millions of dollars. On average, an attack costs $996,000 to resolve.

Phishing may be the most common way for cybercriminals to gain access to email accounts, networks, and sensitive data, but these attacks can easily be prevented with the right technology and user training.

Organizations need to implement email security gateways/spam filtering solutions for all email accounts. This technical measure alone will prevent the majority of phishing emails from arriving in inboxes. Antivirus software and firewalls should be used to protect all endpoints, including computers, phones, tablets, and Internet of Things devices. These solutions should be regularly updated, ideally automatically.

Multi-factor authentication should be used on all accounts that require passwords to login. In the event of a password being obtained in a phishing attack, multi-factor authentication will prevent the password from providing access to the user’s account. Microsoft explained in a 2019 blog post that multi-factor authentication blocks more than 99.9% account compromise attacks.

Employees are the last line of defense in an organization, so it is vital for security awareness training to be provided. Employees need to be taught cybersecurity best practices to eradicate risky behaviors and must learn how to identify and avoid phishing attacks.

Employees should be made aware of the red flags in phishing emails such as call outs to open attachments or click links, unusual wording and formatting, spelling and grammatical errors, threats of negative consequences if rapid action is not taken, and too good to be true offers. If any red flags are identified, it is vital to verify the source of the email or text message and to make content with the sender to confirm a request is authentic. Employees should be conditioned to stop and think before taking any action requested in an email or text message and never to respond, open attachments, or click links in messages if there is any doubt about the sender or request.

According to Verizon, “There is some cause for hope in regard to phishing, as click rates from the combined results of multiple security awareness vendors are going down.” In 2012, phishing email click rates were around 25% but by 2019 they had fallen to around 3% as a result of improved awareness of phishing and more extensive end user training.

Given the scale of the threat from phishing, once-a-year security awareness training sessions are no longer sufficient. While annual training may meet the minimum requirement for compliance with HIPAA, it is not sufficient to reduce the risk of a successful attack to low and acceptable level. Security awareness training for the workforce needs to be an ongoing process, with regular training provided throughout the year accompanied by phishing simulation exercises where the phishing identification skills of employees are put to the test. Through training and phishing simulation exercises, susceptibility to phishing attacks can be greatly reduced.

CISA has produced a tip sheet for Cybersecurity Awareness Month to help individuals fight the phish.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.