Email attacks are always evolving, and because of the “new normal” we face during this pandemic, the digital threat landscape is far more dangerous than ever. Security researchers estimate that there has been a 600% increase in phishing campaigns due to COVID-19, and the majority of these attacks rely on malicious links to steal credentials or deliver malware. Research shows that 1 in 10 employees will click on a malicious link - and just one wrong click can have serious consequences including account compromise, data theft, financial loss, reputation damage and lost productivity. 

Implementing malicious URL protection as part of a comprehensive email security strategy is imperative in defending against phishing, business email compromise (BEC) and other attacks involving malicious links. Now you may be wondering - what exactly is malicious URL protection and how does it work? Don’t worry - we’ve got you covered! In only a few minutes of your time, this article will demystify malicious URL protection and explain why this feature is a “non-negotiable” when it comes to safeguarding your email against persistent and emerging exploits. 

What Is URL Protect and How Does It Work?

Despite the fact that HTML email allows users to hover over a link to view its destination, the reality is that the majority of us do not engage in this security best practice. Malicious URL protection eliminates the risk of a potentially devastating “wrong click” that could result in the submission of credentials or the loss of control of one’s device through the download of ransomware, spyware or other malicious executable software.

While many email security solutions rely on URL rewriting to detect malicious links, this strategy can provide users with a false sense of security - often doing more harm than good. While the process of URL rewriting may be understood by IT professionals, many users may be under the impression that any ‘Safe’ link is indeed safe - although this is often not the case. Thus, URL rewriting can actually have the side effect of increasing the likelihood of users clicking on malicious links.

Guardian Digital URL Protect service takes a different approach to combating malicious URLs - providing multi-layered detection and blocking of malicious URLs by comparing domains and hosts against common blocklists, scanning destination websites in real-time to determine if they are malicious or safe. With this feature, URLs are also evaluated for credential content to detect fraudulent, zero-day credential-phishing sites. If a link is unsafe, the email in which it appears never reaches the recipient. 

Guardian Digital URL Protect conducts a dynamic analysis of all files, extracting links from Microsoft Office documents, PDFs, archive files (ZIP, AIZip, JAR) and other file types (uuencoded, HTML), and using advanced techniques involving machine learning for real-time analysis.

The image above is a phishing email that was identified and quarantined by Guardian Digital EnGarde Cloud Email Security. The email contains a malicious link leading to a fraudulent website where the recipient would be prompted to enter his or her account credentials - which would then be in the hands of the attackers behind this scam. While this email may appear legitimate at first, there are some definite “red flags” that indicate it is fraud. First, the email conveys a sense of urgency in both the subject line and the body, which is intended to encourage users to act fast without carefully examining the email or stopping to think things through. The nonspecific salutation and signature are also indications that this email is fraudulent.

Stats and Trends That You Should Be Aware Of 

  • Phishing attacks using malicious URLs increased by over 600% in Q3 of 2017, when measured year-over-year.
  • Guardian Digital EnGarde Cloud Email Security identified and blocked more phishing emails containing malicious links in May of 2020 than in any month prior since the company’s inception over two decades ago.
  • A recent survey conducted by Osterman Research found that, on average, 24% of a security analysts’ 40-hour workweek is spent investigating, detecting or remediating phishing emails.

Why URL Defense Is More Important than Ever 

Cyber criminals are taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting remote work environment, launching sophisticated new phishing, malware and BEC campaigns targeting cloud email users and preying off human emotion. The majority of these scams employ malicious URLs leading to fake login pages of fraudulent websites.

A slew of recent phishing campaigns are targeting consumer trust in video conferencing platforms including Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet to steal personal information and wreak further havoc in people’s lives during this challenging time. One such campaign involves a fraudulent Microsoft Teams email containing a button to “open” Teams, which is actually a malicious URL that will download malware to the user’s computer. These links are flagged as malicious with Guardian Digital URL Protect service and the email quarantined before ever reaching the user.

The above image is a fraudulent Microsoft Teams email blocked by Guardian Digital EnGarde Cloud Email Security. The “Recover account” link in this email is malicious and, when clicked, would install malware on the victim’s device. This phishing email is extremely convincing and without the implementation of malicious URL protection as part of a comprehensive email security solution, it would be very easy to fall for this dangerous scam.

Next Steps

Malicious URL protection technology is most effective when implemented as part of a comprehensive, defense-in-depth approach to email security. We strongly recommend that users select a multi-layered cloud email security solution that seamlessly integrates with the cloud platform they are using, providing critical additional layers of defenses. Look for a solution that incorporates advanced, real-time malicious URL protection techniques -  mitigating the risk of human error and safeguarding cloud email accounts in this time of heightened vulnerability.

Have additional questions about malicious URL protection? Leave a comment below and one of our security experts will be in touch with you shortly.

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