How to secure email in 2021 and beyond

Email risk is higher than ever in this new remote work environment. Rushed deployments of vulnerable cloud platforms, overworked IT staff, and an increase in inadequately secured endpoints have given threat actors the perfect opportunity to trick employees working remotely into sharing sensitive credentials and downloading destructive malware on their systems.

Many companies have migrated to popular cloud platforms like Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace to fulfill remote workers’ communication needs, and cyber criminals recognize that email is the preferred method for sharing sensitive data and a key communication channel businesses cannot afford to lose access to for any period. Cyber thieves are exploiting businesses’ increased reliance on cloud email and the inherent vulnerability of cloud platforms without additional security defenses to target users with sophisticated attacks designed to compromise systems and steal sensitive data.

business corporate protection safety security conceptLarge corporations aren’t the only entities that have to worry about cybersecurity threats; small businesses are at an even greater risk because they often don’t have the necessary resources to protect themselves. Cyberattacks have devastating consequences and lasting repercussions for the businesses they target. Recovery from an attack or a data breach is difficult, complex, costly - and sometimes even impossible. So, when it comes to email security, it pays to take proactive measures and ensure that adequate security defenses are in place to safeguard the inbox, while, on the other hand, it costs to take a reactive approach.

Now more than ever, no business can afford the aftermath of a cyberattack or a data breach due to an ineffective email security strategy. While organizations could once get away with a somewhat weak email security posture, those days have ended as cyber threats evolve - becoming more sophisticated, targeted, and evasive by the day. In this modern digital threat landscape, an ineffective email security strategy will cost companies immensely - literally and figuratively. A successful cyberattack can have devastating consequences, including data theft, extended downtime, and serious reputation damage. 

No Business Can Afford a Weak Email Security Strategy

Built-in cloud email security defenses provided by Microsoft and Google are primitive, single-layered, and insufficient in detecting and blocking today’s sophisticated and evasive attacks like fileless malware and email account compromise (EAC) scams. Due to the inherent uniformity of cloud platforms, cybercriminals can open an account and test their methods until they can bypass default filters. This uniformity enables them to reuse the same attack on thousands of accounts conveniently.

Cloud email users are highly vulnerable to credential phishing attacks and account takeovers without layered supplementary security defenses. The FBI reports that 30% of credential phishing attempts bypass existing cloud email security defenses and are opened by target users. And mistakenly opening a phishing email is more dangerous than ever - users are now three times more likely to click on a malicious link embedded in a phishing email and then disclose their account credentials than they were pre-COVID. Recovery from an attack or breach is complex, challenging, expensive - and often impossible. Sixty percent of SMBs hit with ransomware go out of business within six months of experiencing the attack.

In this time of uncertainty and heightened digital risk, one theme has become apparent: the best way to deal with the devastation of a cyberattack or a breach is by preventing the attack in the first place, which can be accomplished by understanding the magnitude of email risk your business faces and implementing effective email security defenses to mitigate it. This article will examine how much organizations have to lose in an attack, how to fortify business email, and how to set your company up for security and success with layered supplementary email protection.

What Are the Common Email Security Threats Businesses Face?

a fish hook on computer keyboard representing phishing attack on computer systemIt is a common belief that purchasing a spam filter or antivirus software eliminates the need for concern about email-related attacks. Maybe you’ve taken additional measures and invested in comprehensive cloud email security. If so, you have made a concerted effort to protect yourself from email-related harm and have likely reduced your chances of experiencing a successful attack. However, you can’t just top there. You still need to do more to mitigate your risk of being victimized by phishing, malware, BEC, and other serious threats.

Now more than ever, businesses cannot afford a subpar email security strategy. Companies could once get away with a weak email security posture. Still, those days have ended as cyberattacks rapidly evolve, becoming more sophisticated, targeted, and evasive by the day. Modern email threats that businesses regularly face include:

  • Phishing: Email phishing scams are a cyberattack using malicious emails designed to trick people into a scam. Phishing is one of the most common attacks to make people reveal financial information or other sensitive data. These scams employ highly deceptive tactics such as impersonating government agencies, advertising fraudulent vaccines, and asking for donations. Although phishing is as old as email, it is still businesses' predominant digital threat, accounting for over 90% of all cyberattacks on corporate networks
  • Malware: Threat actors target users with malware designed to infect and destroy their computers by wiping files or rewriting a computer's master boot record (MBR). This malware can be geared toward either destruction or financial gain.
  • Ransomware: Malware that blocks access to a computer until the user pays untraceable money to the hacker. Phishing is one standard method for delivering ransomware. With this threat, a user’s files are encrypted until payment has been made. 
  • Insecure networks: Incidents involving insecure configurations of services and firewalls have increased as administrators take shortcuts to enable remote employee access. From dealing with insufficient bandwidth, undersized VPN infrastructure, and limited availability of managed devices for employees to take home, many businesses must prepare to accommodate a remote workforce - and network security has suffered.
  • Cloud email vulnerabilities: Exchange Online Protection (EOP) - the default security defenses provided in cloud email - is glaringly inadequate, leaving remote employees vulnerable to credential phishing, account takeovers, and other advanced threats. According to the FBI, 30% percent of phishing attacks occur through existing systems and are opened by target cloud email users.
  • Boot Sector and Direct Action Viruses: While commonly found on floppy disks, boot sector viruses can still appear on computers on the Master Boot Record. However, most computers have evolved past floppy disks, making boot sector viruses less common. Direct action viruses work by attaching themselves to a .com or .exe file when installed, spreading to other files, and making them inaccessible. 
  • Resident and Multipartite Viruses: Resident viruses function similarly to direct action viruses since they’re file infectors. Still, a resident virus can install itself on the computer, making it much more dangerous. Multipartite viruses can infect software using various methods, making them difficult to target. It can attack many different files simultaneously. 
  • Keyloggers and Polymorphic Viruses: Keylogging viruses allow cybercriminals to see everything a user types into the keyboard of an infected device, which can be used to steal valuable information and login credentials. Polymorphic viruses are the most difficult to detect with regular antivirus software since they can change their code. Ransomware

How Can You Protect Your Email Account from Being Hacked?

Although implementing a comprehensive cloud email security solution accompanied by fully managed services is the single most crucial step businesses can take toward protecting remote workers in this heightened digital threat environment, administrators should also convey the importance of engaging in safe online behaviors and cybersecurity best practices:

Keep your OS and Apps Updated

Remember that your system and applications are only as secure as their latest security patches. Don’t rely on endpoint security like desktop antivirus alone - the endpoint should be the last line of defense. If something goes wrong, it provides malicious hackers easy access to your system. Remember that your OS and applications are only as secure as their latest security patches, and vulnerabilities can give malicious actors easy access to your systems, networks, and critical data. 

Enable automatic updates whenever possible and turn off unnecessary applications and services. Choosing an open-source OS like Linux and selecting open-source applications provides access to more rapid fixes and updates than proprietary alternatives due to the constant scrutiny that open-source code undergoes by members of the vibrant, global open-source community.

Use a VPN

A VPN, or a virtual private network, is an excellent tool to protect your email account from being hacked. It lets you open your email safely and securely by routing the Internet connection through a server and encrypting the data transfer. 

Third parties won’t be able to tell what you’re doing or where you’re located when using a VPN. This makes your internet activity untraceable. The great thing about VPNs is that they can be used on various devices, including computers, laptops, mobile phones, and tablets. 

VPNs work on both private and public networks. When selecting a VPN, watch for pitfalls like free VPNs, which often carry inherent security flaws and privacy issues.

Activate Multi-Factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) offers extra protection for your email accounts. In addition to passwords, multi-factor authentication requires you to enter a second piece of information generated on another application to confirm your identity. This dramatically reduces the chances of hackers gaining access to your accounts. 

Beware of Suspicious Emails

Suspicious emails have been around for a while. Many different methods are used to target victims, and many people fall victim to these scams. Phishing emails are designed to trick users into entering confidential information such as passwords, account numbers, or dates of birth after clicking a link. These emails may also include attachments that, once opened, will infect your computer with malware. 

Though identifying phishing emails is difficult because hackers are constantly coming up with new ways to deceive people, there are ways you can tell them apart from authentic messages. Look out for mismatched URLs, poor spelling and grammar, unexpected correspondence, requests for personal information, and threatening language – these are signs of a possible phishing email. 

Be wary of emails from personal email addresses. Be cautious with links and attachments. Ensure you have malicious URL protection and sender authentication protocols to protect against phishing, spoofing, and impersonation scams. These defenses should be implemented as part of a comprehensive, multi-tiered email security solution.

Warn Your Contacts 

If hackers can access your email account and lock you out, immediately inform your colleagues, friends, and family of the breach. This will reduce the chances of them falling for any attacks from your email. Remind them not to open any applications, click on any links, or share any personal information until you resolve the issue. 

Install Antivirus Software

Antivirus software protects by scanning for and removing malware. Once installed, ensure it is regularly updated to fend off new attacks. With antivirus software, you can scan email attachments for any potential malware. This dramatically reduces the risk of being exposed to ransomware and other malicious applications. 

Create Strong Passwords

Verizon reports that 81% of data breach happen because of weak or stolen passwords. Often overlooked, having a solid password is a simple yet effective method to protect your email accounts. Never reuse old passwords. Your password should be longer than ten characters. Utilize a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. 

Use a Password Manager

It can be difficult to remember many passwords for all your online accounts. For that reason, utilizing a password manager will provide a centralized and encrypted location to keep those passwords safe. Password managers store login details from all accounts you use and automatically log you in each time you return to the service. 

The first step of using a password manager is creating a master password. It will be the key to control access to your entire password database. You must never forget the master password and make it as secure as possible. In addition to being excellent password generators, Dashlane and LastPass double as password managers. 

Limit Login Attempts 

You should limit the number of login attempts to prevent someone from accessing your email account by guessing the credentials. Email service providers usually allow users to set the number of login attempts before they lock the account for a specific time. In addition, you will be notified when someone attempts to log in multiple times. Make sure to activate this feature for extra protection. 

Avoid Sharing Personal Information Online

Refraining from sharing personal information online is extremely important, as cybercriminals can leverage these valuable details to craft highly convincing and dangerous social engineering attacks that exploit trust relationships and human nature. Social engineers rely heavily on social media for their research and scour the Internet for personal information published on other websites. Many modern cyberattacks rely on social engineering or deception to manipulate individuals into sharing confidential or personal information that can be used for fraudulent or malicious purposes. 

Thus, users must frequently check websites for personal data that may be publicly available and request that it be removed. Websites like haveibeenpwned, which notify users when their information is discovered online, can help monitor the availability of personal data on the Internet.

Secure Your Wi-Fi Connection

When setting up your home Wi-Fi network, you’ll be asked to create a publicly visible network name known as the SSID (Service Set Identifier). Most routers are configured with a default network name from the manufacturer. First, you should immediately change the default name to make it harder for hackers to know what router you use. The router’s firmware may contain vulnerabilities that hackers will be looking to exploit. Since routers don’t have an auto-update feature, you must do it manually to protect your Wi-Fi network. 

Avoid Using Public Wi-Fi 

Public Wi-Fi is where internet users are the most vulnerable. Since it’s difficult to know how well-protected a network is, hackers may already be on the lookout as you type in your email login details. Because anyone can access public Wi-Fi, your information is at risk of being exposed. If you need to use Wi-Fi while you’re not at home, ensure a VPN is enabled to hide your activities on the network. 

Other Tools and Resources You Can Use to Combat Cyberattacks

Cyber security systems for business networkWhen evaluating an email security solution, it is imperative to consider its features and technology. Because email-related attacks have evolved to be highly advanced and difficult to detect, relying on a spam filter or an antivirus solution is not enough to keep you or your organization out of harm’s way. 

These features can be beneficial, but only if implemented as part of an advanced, comprehensive cloud email security. Many email security providers sell these features in an “a la carte” manner, allowing customers to select specific features and work within a budget. This approach fails to recognize the shortcomings of these features on their own. Furthermore, the products these companies offer often fall short of what open-source alternatives can provide regarding security, efficacy, and cost-effectiveness.

  • Signature-based Detection and Heuristics: Signature-based detection addresses software threats and involves your antivirus having a repository of signatures that represent known threats. On the other hand, heuristics uses algorithms to scan and detect commands that can indicate viruses. 
  • Real-time Protection and Sandbox Detection: Real-time virus protection scans your computer to uncover viruses and block files containing malware. Sandbox testing works similarly to real-time protection, but it proactively detects malware. 
  • Data Mining Techniques: Data mining techniques to prevent viruses are a relatively new approach. By mining data and finding anomalies, professionals can discover malicious threats. Typically, data mining is used for malware detection. 
  • Transport Layer Security (TLS): TLS is a common protocol that facilitates data security over the web by encrypting communication between applications and servers. It can also be used to encrypt emails. You already see TLS in your daily life—for example, HTTPS, which in website URLs is a type of TLS encryption. 
  • Assess the Risk of Your Email: Email risk assessments validate emails and email addresses against information about the sender online. They can verify identities and reputations to ensure you can trust the emails you’re receiving. 
  • Endpoint Security as a Last Line of Defense: Endpoint security secures your devices, including laptops, desktops, cellphones, and tablets, so threats can’t be exploited. There are many different types of endpoint security, but you should use this method without a supplementary security system.  
  • AI-powered Email Security Services: AI-powered email security services help defend you from phishing, ransomware, and other email attacks in real time using artificial intelligence to offer complete visibility into the security of your email and potential threats. 
  • Stay Educated and up-to-date on the Latest Email Threats: Awareness is essential in practicing innovative online behavior, recognizing malicious email scams, and avoiding attacks. Ensure that all members of your organization remain educated and up-to-date on the latest email threats and security trends by requiring employees to participate in ongoing security awareness training. Subscribing to publications like our Behind the Shield newsletter is a great way to learn about the latest email security threats, trends, and tips for avoiding attacks - conveniently delivered to your inbox weekly.

Managed services are another key characteristic of effective email protection that is often overlooked. Selecting a solution that is accompanied by expert, ongoing system monitoring maintenance simplifies administration, reduces costs, and delivers invaluable peace of mind, knowing the security of your company’s critical assets is overseen around the clock by a team of experts.

What Are the Benefits of Robust Email Security?

Email has become an essential aspect of modern communication in personal and professional settings. Taking email security seriously will give your company a significant edge in both the client and employee markets. People want to know that their information will be safe with you. When a company consistently and openly promotes and enforces strong email security, it earns the trust of both those who work for it and those who are partners and customers. By following good email security practices, you keep your company safe and earn the respect and trust of those who work alongside you.

Improvement in Brand Image & Stronger Client Loyalty

Openly communicating your company’s email security practices and strategy for protecting against outsider threats contributes to a strong corporate reputation. Current and prospective clients and partners respect and have confidence in organizations prioritizing security and demonstrating that they can protect sensitive client data. A solid crisis communications plan will protect your reputation and maintain client loyalty in case of a breach. Ultimately, clients remain loyal to companies they are confident in.

Enhanced Productivity and decreased Operational Costs

Effective risk mitigation reduces or eliminates potential downtime and disruptions due to security incidents, allowing companies to operate more effectively and efficiently. A solid email security strategy pays off by removing exposure to financial risks, avoiding production shutdown, and maintaining business activity by decreasing a company’s operational costs and delivering a rapid return on investment (ROI). This helps boost employee morale, which, in turn, further enhances productivity.

Promotion of the Employer Brand

Job seekers are attracted to companies that prioritize security and demonstrating responsibility. Thus, having a strong email security strategy and communicating the measures you are taking to secure company and client data will help incite interest from conscientious job candidates. 

Modern Threats Require Defense-in-Depth Protection

Adequate modern email security highly depends on the defense-in-depth principle. No single security feature is sufficient to detect today’s advanced attacks. Many employ stealthy fileless techniques designed to evade traditional signature-based detection methods. 

Internet and e mail security concept on lack digital screen. Blue At sign is being protected by  a padlock. Horizontal composition with copy space. Clipping path is included.Built-in cloud email defenses alone are ineffective in combating sophisticated modern threats like spear phishing and fileless malware. Despite existing protection, 40% of cloud email users have experienced credential theft. Safeguarding users and critical data in these vulnerable platforms requires layered supplementary security defenses to fill existing cloud email protection gaps.

An effective supplementary email security solution consists of multiple layers of purpose-driven standards and technologies designed to work harmoniously to detect persistent and emerging threats in real time, preventing all malicious mail from reaching the inbox - where it could potentially cause significant harm. These technologies should leverage advanced threat intelligence, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT), and Machine Learning (ML), to monitor and learn from the latest threats and to update their protection to remain ahead of emerging attacks. Malicious URL protection and properly implemented email authentication protocols - namely, SPF, DKIM, and DMARC - are features that organizations should prioritize when selecting supplementary email protection. These “layers” of security are crucial in protecting against phishing, email spoofing, and sender fraud - all central components of the modern email threat landscape.

Guardian Digital, the only open-source email security company, believes in a holistic, comprehensive approach to securing email accounts. The EnGarde Cloud Email Security combines many advanced open-source features and technologies to provide complete, unrivaled protection amid today’s scary and unpredictable digital threat landscape. EnGarde utilizes Big Data techniques, machine learning, and advanced heuristics technologies, among many other state-of-the-art protective features, to identify new and existing threats, including advanced persistent threats and zero-day exploits. The gateway rapidly and accurately identifies and quarantines malicious emails, ensuring that only safe and legitimate mail reaches the inbox. Moreover, the highest levels of encryption are used to prevent data loss.

If you or your business prioritizes the safety of your information and, ultimately, your people, chances are you have taken measures to secure your email. The crucial question is: Is your email secure with the prevalence and severity of email-related attacks rising?

Keep Learning About Enhancing Business Email Security

As software to prevent cyberattacks becomes more robust, cyberattacks become increasingly more subtle. Regardless of your company's size or the industry it services, companies rely heavily on email for business - and can reap tremendous benefits by investing in your email security strategy. In this modern threat environment, CEOs and CFOs are more responsible than ever to protect users and critical data by implementing a robust, multi-layered email security strategy. This can be accomplished by prioritizing risk management, educating employees on the threats they face online daily, and choosing the right security technology accompanied by the expert, ongoing system monitoring, maintenance, and support required to ensure that users and critical business assets remain secure.

Strategic thinking and careful planning are needed to safeguard business email against modern threats. Taking preventative measures and ensuring that your business has implemented effective email security defenses is undoubtedly a more reasonable approach than dealing with the repercussions of a successful attack. In this sense, email security is an investment that continues to pay off in terms of safety, business success, and brand image. 

Properly setting up and securely navigating a cloud email platform while working remotely may seem challenging and overwhelming. The reality is that organizations must rely on something other than administrators to configure their cloud email service to be 100 percent secure. Thus, implementing a fully managed vCISO solution that seamlessly complements your cloud email platform and default protection and bolsters EOP's features with critical additional layers of defenses is the most effective way to fortify cloud email against sophisticated modern threats. 

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