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Return to Basics: Email Security in the Post-COVID Workplace

As we reimagine the post-pandemic workplace, we must also reevaluate post-pandemic email security practices.

As 2020 began, businesses couldn't have predicted the disruption they were about to experience. As the COVID-19 pandemic struck, companies scrambled to adapt their infrastructure and technology to keep newly virtual employees connected and productive. Once long-term office closures became unavoidable, business leaders had to establish long-term connectivity and security procedures for their virtual workforce.

Eighteen months later, as vaccination rates rise and infection rates fall, businesses are making plans to reopen their offices. But few companies plan to return to their pre-pandemic status quo of an office full of employees. Uncertainty persists as companies adapt to changing regulations, determine who can work hybrid schedules, and assess which roles can remain remote. We can be certain that cybercriminals are watching these developments carefully, making plans for where to strike during the transition.

Regardless of physical location, employees will continue to require reliable access to business applications. Cybercriminals will take advantage of this transition. They will determine the best methods and times to attack those who are navigating the learning curve of new cloud-based systems.

As we reimagine the post-pandemic workplace, we must also reevaluate post-pandemic email security practices. We must ensure that networks remain protected, regardless of whether employees are working from corporate headquarters or from their dining room table.

Changing Workplace Dynamics
COVID-19 drove radical changes in how and where people work. According to a survey of Fortune 500 executives, only about 16% of employees were working remotely before the pandemic. After March 2020, this number grew to over 65%. Many who previously relied on office computers had to quickly learn to access work applications from home computers, laptops, and tablets.

As offices reopen, the surveyed executives expect that one-quarter of their workforce will choose to remain fully remote. In certain sectors, such as technology and finance, the percentage of fully remote workers is expected to reach 35% to 40%.

With employees accessing company resources from a range of locations and endpoints, IT must predict potential new vulnerabilities that arise from deploying a hybrid workforce, then plan to mitigate the inevitable cyberattacks that follow.

New Email Threats
Email is at the root of nearly all data breaches. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, email is the No. 1 threat vector organizations face. The pandemic exacerbated the challenge of email security, as opportunistic cybercriminals used COVID-related themes to trick people into sharing personal information, financial data, or both.

To launch a successful phishing attack, threat actors typically choose a timely topic and an appearance of legitimacy to lull a target into their trap. In April 2020, early in the pandemic, Google's Threat Analysis Group reported 18 million pandemic-themed attack emails per day. More recently, there has been an uptick in email attacks that leverage COVID-19 vaccine-related themes.

This dramatic increase of COVID-related scams prompted official warnings from the US government. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned of a campaign spoofing its emails. This campaign targeted victims with attachments supposedly describing infection-prevention measures. By the end of 2020, even the FBI issued a statement urging vigilance and caution.

Building a Better Email Security Posture
IT and security teams should emphasize to their co-workers that every employee is responsible for protecting network security and corporate data. When it comes to minimizing vulnerability to email attacks, a little common sense goes a long way.

Here are five key points that IT and security teams should impress on their employees:

  1. Do not open unsolicited email from people you don't know.
  2. Question third-party sources spreading information about COVID-19.
  3. Do not click links in emails.
  4. Be wary of attachments.
  5. Do not supply any personal information, especially passwords, to anyone via email.

Companies should keep employees up to date on the latest tactics and social engineering clues attackers use to entice them. The IT department can provide in-context education, warning employees when suspicious emails hit their inboxes, and allowing recipients to mark emails as safe, as long as they're from a trusted entity.

Email is the primary source of cyber threats. For this reason, network and data protection begins with each employee's email inbox. No matter where they are physically located or which device they have used to connect to the corporate network, every employee needs proper training and tools to defend their company against phishing and spoofing threats.

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