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3/14/2018
10:30 AM
Jo-Ann Smith
Jo-Ann Smith
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A Secure Enterprise Starts with a Cyber-Aware Staff

An attack doesn't have to be super high-tech to cause a lot of damage. Make sure your employees know how to spot an old-fashioned phishing campaign.

NotPetya. BadRabbit. Locky. New forms of ransomware may dominate the headlines and make victims WannaCry, but the majority of cyberattacks result from elementary tactics, such as phishing attacks. A recent Google study even found phishing attacks allow criminals to break into a victim's account more efficiently than they would with a data breach.

Phishing is a form of social engineering that uses email to steal sensitive user info, such as login credentials or access to customer data. Typically, an attacker poses as a trusted coworker or client — creating an email address with just one missing character, for example — and then dupes the victim into opening an attachment or clicking a malicious link, which can lead to malware installation or identity theft. In this day and age, we all check email on the go while switching between various devices, so most of us don't think twice about opening an attachment from someone we think we know. The bottom line: phishing is not overly sophisticated, but it is tricky enough to be effective.

According to the Ponemon Institute, phishing campaigns can cost the average U.S. company $3.77 million a year. In 2017 alone, several damaging phishing attacks showed us that we can all be fooled into opening the wrong thing at the wrong time. For example, a cybercriminal group sent "malware laden" emails to Chipotle staff, compromising point-of-sale systems at many locations and stealing customer credit card data from millions of people in the process. Google and Facebook were out $100 million each when an attacker used a phishing email to trick employees into wiring money overseas. And a spear-fishing scam that sent phony information requests to employees for "tax purposes" compromised more than 120,000 people at more than 100 organizations.

These examples only scratch the surface of the number of attacks I've seen throughout my 20-year career in information security. No matter how sophisticated attacks get over time, however, I still consider internal phishing testing one of the best ways to teach employees to be more cyber-resilient.

Different Audiences
Phishing testing allows you to assume the role of the attacker and target different audiences at your company to see who takes the bait. From there, you can establish a baseline measurement of employee susceptibility to cyberattacks and provide one-on-one education training to those who continue to get duped by the tests. The point isn't to call out anyone or embarrass employees for dropping the ball, but rather to help them learn along the way by stimulating personal security awareness. If they fall for your faux-phishing test, you can bet they'll be a liability when the real thing comes along.

In my current role at endpoint security firm Absolute, I've only introduced phishing testing exercises in the past year, but they've already paid off. A whaling attempt — that is, a phishing attempt aimed specifically at a high-ranking employee — recently targeted an executive at the company, and our internal training helped him recognize the attack and report it to our IT team right away. He attributed this to the phishing exercises and the internal training we've completed.

When developing the phishing test scenario, it's important to keep the fake email realistic enough to provide a teachable moment, yet not so appealing that it would fool even the cybersecurity nerd who's always chatting about the latest ransomware at the water cooler. In one of my previous roles, I sent out a phishing email that rewarded employees with gift cards to a coffee shop in our building as part of a made-up company celebration. Not only did a whopping 78% of our employees blindly click on it for a caffeine fix, but the coffee chain also honored the gift cards, with my company having to pay them back! After that experience, I think less about outsmarting employees when building a phishing test and more about re-creating a normal, unremarkable scenario that people will come across on a regular basis to provide a teachable lesson that will stick with them.

Today's security training programs should reflect the sophistication of modern-day attacks, but we also can't forget about the basics. Conducting interactive security trainings throughout the year keeps employees on their toes and allows enterprises to spot trends and track processes over time. Your employees won't remember a snooze-worthy PowerPoint presentation from two years ago, but they may think twice about opening a sketchy attachment after falling for a faux phishing attack.

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Jo-Ann Smith is an IT security professional who has worked in information technology as both an employee and a consultant for more than 20 years. She currently serves as the Director of Technology Risk Management and Data Privacy at Absolute. Jo-Ann is responsible for ... View Full Bio
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