The Modern Email Threat Landscape: Where Traditional Defenses Fall Short
- by Brittany Day
Email threats are ever-evolving. Cyber criminals are persistent in their efforts, continually working on perfecting their craft - employing new, increasingly sophisticated methods, tactics and techniques to deceive users, evade security defenses, and ultimately, get paid.
The email threat landscape is continually changing in this “new reality” that all businesses are facing - the sudden shift to a remote workforce, increased reliance on cloud email to fulfill communication and collaboration needs and a shortage in IT staffing and funding to facilitate the transition to an increasingly digital infrastructure.
While it is no secret that this is a challenging time for all companies, it is also a golden opportunity for cyber thieves, interested in benefiting from the chaos. Threat actors are exploiting rushed migrations to vulnerable cloud platforms like Office 365 and G Suite, a shortage in security resources and expertise and users’ heightened anxieties to target organizations with timely, convincing attacks, obtain access to account credentials and confidential business information and cut into businesses’ profits. Small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are a disproportionately large target for cyber attackers, as they recognize that these companies often lack a full-time IT department and an adequate cyber security budget to defend themselves.
While it is critical that users are alert and educated on the threats that they face online, users cannot be expected to detect today’s advanced threats without fail - making the implementation of layered, comprehensive defenses more critical than ever. That being said, the majority of traditional email security defenses have fallen behind, unable to keep pace with emerging exploits, and often providing users and organizations with a false sense of security. In this article, we take a closer look at modern email risk, where the majority of email security solutions fall short and how to stay ahead of the latest, most dangerous attacks.
While email-borne cyber attacks were once simplistic, “cookie-cutter” phishing scams exploiting unaware users, those days are far behind us. Modern email threats have become so sophisticated and targeted that it is now much harder to blame the user for falling for a scam. After all, even the most security-aware individuals can be fooled by these dynamic attack campaigns.
Cyber criminals are getting better at disguising themselves - devoting extensive time and resources to social engineering research. Once a target has been selected, threat actors scan all their social media pages to learn what type of content they are engaging with, who their friends are, who their former co-workers are, and more. In some cases, criminals will even create fake profiles to connect with potential targets and obtain more information that can be used to craft highly convincing spear phishing and whaling emails. Not only does the information obtained through social engineering make these email attack campaigns appear more credible, it also helps them evade spam filters, since each fraudulent email is unique.
Malware is another email-borne threat that is quickly advancing in complexity and sophistication. Traditionally, the same malware was sent to many users, and once these viruses were identified, security companies used the file’s signature to identify new attacks. This tactic is ineffective in the modern digital threat environment, as attackers now generate a unique file for each recipient.
While the majority of primitive malware attacks relied on executable files to infect victims’ systems, malicious hackers are increasingly leveraging stealthy fileless techniques which exploit legitimate, trusted system tools to evade traditional security defenses. Because fileless malware does not use executable files and, therefore, does not have a signature, the majority of signature-based antivirus software and simplistic email security solutions are unable to detect this emerging exploit. This enables cyber thieves to quietly sit on systems for extended periods of time, eavesdrop on their targets and steal confidential business information. Ponemon Institute reports that fileless attacks are 10 times more successful than file-based attacks.
Other pay-loadless email scams that don’t involve malicious files - namely business email compromise (BEC) and email account compromise (EAC) - are also on the rise. These dangerous impersonation attacks involve a malicious hacker hijacking an email account and then sending fraudulent emails from the compromised account to steal sensitive information and money from victims. The FBI has disclosed that between June 2016 and July 2019, BEC has generated reported losses of $26 billion worldwide, and financial losses from BEC attacks alone have increased 136% over the past two years.
Yesterday’s Defenses Can’t Combat Today’s Threats
As the email-borne threats that businesses and users face on a daily basis continue to advance, the methods and technologies used to detect and combat them must keep pace. However, in general, security defenses have fallen far behind - frequently allowing malicious emails to slip through the cracks and cause great harm in the form of data theft, financial loss, decreased productivity and reputation damage.
Due to a lack of understanding or prioritization of security, it is not uncommon for businesses to implement simplistic, single-layered security software that takes a static rule-based approach to identifying and blocking malicious mail. This technology relies on seeing the same virus or spam message across many customers - an outdated approach that is largely ineffective nowadays. According to Ponemon Institute, 80% of SMBs report that malware has evaded their antivirus software.
Another common email security mistake businesses are frequently making is relying on endpoint security alone to secure their email. Solutions deployed at the perimeter are often ineffective, as they don’t provide persistent, end-to-end protection and are typically blind to internal threats like fraudulent employee-to-employee messages or compromised accounts. Endpoint security solutions also carry a selection of other risks. For instance, these solutions are more vulnerable to zero-day attacks than network security solutions because they don’t have the benefit of the worldwide resources that are available to network security systems. In addition, an organizations’ endpoints can be viewed as its last line of defense against cyber attackers, and if something goes wrong at an endpoint, it’s an easy target for malicious hackers. In general, endpoint security strategies are both inefficient and ineffective in protecting against modern email threats.
The Modern Solution to Email Attacks
The business email security market is rapidly shifting in favor of multi-layered machine-learning-based systems that learn and adapt to the increasingly dynamic and targeted attacks that challenge their defenses. Successful modern email security systems must learn each customers’ environment and detect anomalies in real-time in order to prevent attacks. Static, rule-based solutions are no longer sufficient in safeguarding the inbox.
Guardian Digital recognizes that modern threats demand modern defenses, and has engineered its all-in-one EnGarde Cloud Email Security to keep businesses ahead of sophisticated emerging attacks with comprehensive, intuitive protection. EnGarde’s flexible, multi-layered design leverages advanced AI algorithms and machine learning techniques to detect persistent and emerging attacks - constantly learning from these threats and updating itself in real-time.
To combat sophisticated impersonation scams and email fraud, EnGarde employs a combination of real-time URL scanning, layered email authentication protocols and advanced reputation analysis to evaluate each email that passes through its gateway - ensuring that only safe, legitimate mail reaches the inbox.
A unique open-source approach to software development provides Guardian Digital developers and engineers with access to tools and resources from a vibrant global community, which creates a solid foundation upon which innovative, threat-ready solutions can be built.
Interested in learning more about securing your business email for the future with EnGarde Cloud Email Security? Let’s get in touch.
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