As 2020 approaches, email attacks are more prevalent and sophisticated than ever before. Threat actors recognize that email is the preferred method for confidential business communications, as well as an essential asset that organizations cannot afford lose access to for even a day. It comes as no surprise that, according to Verizon, 90% of cyber attacks are initiated via email.

 Many businesses either believe that their email is adequately secured when in reality it is not or feel that they are “too small” to be targeted in a cyber attack. It is misconceptions like these that leave organizations vulnerable to attacks and the losses, decreased productivity and ruined reputations that often ensue.

Other organizations are aware that they are inadequately protected, but fail to recognize the fact that they cannot afford to be without effective email security. According to Ponemon Institute, only 40% of SMBs report that the technologies currently used by their organization can detect and block most cyber attacks and only 14% rate their ability to mitigate cyber risks, vulnerabilities and attacks as highly effective

This article will provide a brief overview of the dangerous attacks that currently threaten email users, offer advice on effectively securing business email accounts and outline email security best practices that will help mitigate your risk of suffering an attack.

Breaking Down the Modern Email Threat Landscape

The digital threat landscape is constantly evolving, and new attack variations are always emerging. However, certain threats persist due to their effectivity in deceiving users. Some of the most dangerous and common attacks that currently threaten email users include:

Phishing

Phishing is an attack variation in which threat actors send malicious emails designed to trick users into falling for a scam. The motive behind a phishing campaign is usually to get people to reveal financial information, credentials or other sensitive data.

Phishing is extremely prevalent because it is cheap, easy and effective. For these reasons, phishing is currently the most commonly used attack vector on organizations, leading to 53% of all cyber security breaches. Phishing campaigns are virtually free to carry out, but can be extremely costly to their victims, often resulting in data loss, identity theft or malware infections.

Spear phishing is a highly targeted variation of phishing in which attackers send fraudulent emails that appear to be from a known or trusted sender in order to obtain sensitive information. Spear phishing is becoming an increasingly popular method of attack because it is generally more successful than conventional phishing. As opposed to sending hundreds of thousands of relatively generic emails out at a time, spear phishing campaigns involve researching victims and utilizing advanced social engineering techniques and intelligence strategies to compose fewer, more convincing messages.

Whaling is another form of phishing designed to target high profile executives, or “whales”, and manipulate victims into authorizing high-value wire transfers to the attacker. Unlike traditional phishing campaigns, whaling doesn’t involve employees clicking on links or becoming infected with malware. Instead, the goal of a whaling attack is to trick an individual into disclosing sensitive information through the use of social engineering, email spoofing and website spoofing. 

Business Email Compromise (BEC)

In a business email compromise (BEC) attack, a threat actor obtains access to a corporate email account and sends fraudulent emails under the identity of the account owner in order to steal money from the company or its employees, partners or customers. BEC is becoming increasingly common and costly. Between May 2018 and July 2019, there was an astounding 100% increase in identified global exposed losses due to BEC.

Malware

Malware encompasses all software designed to disrupt, damage or gain unauthorized access to a computer system. Malware can perform various detrimental functions including encrypting or deleting sensitive data, stealing, hijacking or altering central computing functions and monitoring users’ activity without their permission. Malware attacks can have serious consequences for businesses. According to Accenture, the average cost in lost productivity of a malware attack is 50 days, an amount of downtime that would have severe repercussions for any business. Although different types of malware have different methods of proliferating and infecting computers, 92% of malware is delivered via email.

Ransomware is a specific type of malware designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money in the form of untraceable Bitcoin is paid. It does this by encrypting a victim’s files until they have made the payment demanded by the attacker. Over the past year, ransomware attacks from phishing emails have increased by an alarming 109%. In 2018, one in three small to medium sized businesses worldwide were hit by ransomware and one in five were forced to shut down operations completely until the infection was removed. Data shows that the majority of small businesses are not able to recover from an attack, and 60% of SMBs go out of business within six months of getting hit with ransomware.

Unsolicited Spam Email

Spam email refers to unsolicited messages sent in bulk. According to Statista, spam accounted for an alarming 56% of email traffic in March 2019. Regardless of its purpose or origin, spam email should be recognized as a serious threat. Aside from the fact that it is extremely annoying, spam may contain malicious links or attachments and is often a vector for other dangerous attacks like phishing and malware. 

Computer Viruses

A computer virus is a type of malware which replicates and spreads by modifying other computer programs and inserting its own code. Computer viruses are extremely prevalent and can compromise sensitive information, destroy data, harm hardware and waste copious amounts of time, resources and energy. Email viruses, which constitute the majority of computer viruses, can be activated when a user either clicks on a link, downloads an attachment or interacts in some other way with the body of an infected email.

Zero-Day Attacks

A zero-day attack refers to a scenario in which threat actors exploit a vulnerability before developers have had the chance to release a fix for it. These attacks often occur without users’ knowledge and can carry hefty costs for businesses in the form of data theft, system downtime, lost productivity, damaged reputations and regulatory actions. According to Ponemon Institute, 37% of attacks that targeted businesses in 2018 were zero-day attacks -- a 48% increase from 2017.

Email Security Best Practices

While implementing a high-quality business email security gateway solution is the most effective way to mitigate your company’s risk of suffering the potentially devastating aftermath of an attack, there are some best practices that users should engage in to protect themselves, their information and the company that they are a part of. These email security best practices include:

  • Be on the lookout for spoofed email addresses or names. Make sure that the sender’s email address matches the company name and format exactly.
  • Refrain from clicking through links embedded in email messages.
  • Avoid opening potentially dangerous attachments that are included in emails from unknown senders.
  • Keep an eye out for phishing emails.
  • Scan all attachments for malware.
  • Keep your mail client, operating system and web browser updated and patched.
  • Verify the source of any suspicious email that you receive.
  • Always remember: Take time to stop and fully think things through. Act smart, not fast!

What Constitutes an Effective Email Security Strategy?

Effectively protecting against modern email threats requires a comprehensive, multi-layered approach to email security that goes beyond what traditional antivirus software or spam filtration frameworks alone can offer. Defense-in-depth is essential in combating today’s advanced email attacks, as no individual security feature is sufficient in identifying and taking down threat actors’ sophisticated campaigns. Working in unison within an advanced business email security gateway solution, these various layers of security are more effective at preventing successful email attacks than any single method of protection alone.

Security awareness training and employee education are also critical in preventing attacks; however, user behavior is ultimately unpredictable. Thus, implementing a centrally-hosted and fully-managed business email security gateway solution is the best way to create a safeguarded environment around users and reduce the risk of human error.

Guardian Digital EnGarde Email Security Gateway provides complete, highly effective business email protection, conveniently providing you with the peace of mind to focus on aspects of business besides email security. Key features of EnGarde’s protection include:

  • Modern multi-tiered architecture in which individual security features work harmoniously to detect and combat threats in real-time
  • Scalable cloud-based system that simplifies deployment and increases availability
  • Zero-hour outbreak control that protects against new, unknown threats
  • Secure endpoint encryption using strong cryptography
  • Multiple leading antivirus engines and spam filtration technologies 
  • Tighter security, adaptive implementation and eliminated risk of vendor lock-in through the use of a transparent, collaborative development approach
  • Passionate, knowledgeable 24x7x365 support services

Want to learn more about email threats and how to effectively secure your business email?

Do you have any questions or concerns about email threats or email security that haven’t been addressed in this article? Are you interested in learning more about the benefits of securing your business email with Guardian Digital EnGarde Email Security Gateway? Please do not hesitate to contact us. We would love to help!

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