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Phishing is one of the most significant threats to cybersecurity. Phishing may not grab the headlines like other cyber threats, but underestimating its danger is a mistake many organizations make. Here’s a deeper look at why focusing on phishing prevention is essential.

The Evolution of Phishing: From Broad Nets to Sharp Spears

Gone are the days when phishing meant generic, easily spotted emails. Now, cybercriminals engage in ‘spear phishing’, a method where they meticulously gather information about a target organization and its employees from various online sources. These crafted messages, looking deceptively legitimate, often impersonate internal contacts and are designed to elicit urgent action from unsuspecting employees.

Once a target organization is identified, attackers send malicious messages that contain timely information relevant to the targeted employees and appear to come from known sources.

For example, a bad actor might impersonate a member of the organization’s IT team and send an email with an urgent message to install an important security patch—which actually infects the employee’s computer with malware. Or an attacker may pose as the company’s HR director and invite employees to view time-sensitive documents via an enclosed link—which redirects them to a phishing page that steals their login credentials.

The Art of Deception: Today’s Convincing Phishing Attacks

Modern phishing emails are sophisticated and alarmingly convincing. Thanks to tools like Google Translate and AI tools like ChatGPT, threat actors can craft messages with perfect spelling, grammar, and syntax, which can bypass the tell-tale signs of yesteryear’s phishing attempts. They also spoof email addresses of trusted parties, hiding their true identities behind usernames and URLs with minor misspellings or character substitutions that are easily overlooked.

Attackers focus on exploiting emotions and using social engineering, making them hard to distinguish from genuine correspondence. In short, bad actors have learned how to create phishing emails that wouldn’t raise any level of suspicion in most employees.

The Domino Effect: How One Phishing Email Opens Many Doors

In today’s professional landscape, an email account is central to virtually all job-related functions. It’s used by employees not just for communication but also for essential tasks such as accessing various applications, linking different business accounts, and managing password resets. This central role makes email accounts a prime target for cybercriminals, as gaining control of these credentials can open doors to a wide array of other systems and accounts within an organization.

Take, for example, a compromised Microsoft 365 email account. Such a breach doesn’t just expose the email itself; it potentially allows attackers to infiltrate integrated tools like Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, and OneDrive. This breach provides opportunities to access and extract confidential information and valuable data.

The situation escalates when an attacker begins to manipulate the compromised email account. They might set up rules to automatically forward emails to a different account, silently monitoring and gathering information without the employee’s awareness. Furthermore, attackers could reset passwords for associated accounts, effectively locking out the legitimate owner and extending their control.

This threat is amplified by common security oversights, such as the frequent reuse of passwords. Statistics show that around 54% of employees reuse passwords for multiple work accounts, making it easier for attackers to gain access to a broader range of systems without needing to crack or change passwords.

Phishing: The Foremost Cybercrime

Over the last two years, the landscape of email security threats has been dominated by phishing. Since 2019, phishing has consistently been at the top of the list of cybercrimes reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). The growth of phishing incidents is striking, with attacks increasing more than 150% yearly.

While phishing may not rank at the top in terms of direct financial losses, falling into the bottom third of all cybercrimes in this regard as per IC3’s tracking, it’s a mistake for organizations to downplay its significance. The reality is that phishing often serves as an initial step, a sort of ‘gateway’ into a series of more complex criminal activities. Rather than being the ultimate objective, phishing is typically employed as a strategic entry point, setting the stage for more elaborate and damaging cyber offenses.

The Gateway Crime: Phishing as a Prelude to Greater Threats

Phishing is seldom the final objective; it is usually the first step in a series of attacks. With stolen credentials, attackers can orchestrate email takeovers, financial fraud, and even initiate ransomware attacks, among other threats.

The process of hijacking an email account always begins with a successful login, necessitating valid user credentials. Phishing emails have proven to be a highly effective tool for attackers to acquire these credentials. Once they have access to an email account, cybercriminals can engage in further deceptive activities. They can pose as legitimate employees, leveraging the hijacked email to initiate or intervene in business communications.

Moreover, phishing tactics are frequently used to gain access to sensitive areas such as a company’s banking or financial portals. Possessing the correct login details, attackers can conduct financial fraud activities such as transferring funds to their accounts, manipulating payment directions, issuing false payment requests, and extracting confidential financial data for subsequent exploitative activities.

Securing Against the Subtle Danger of Phishing

When an employee engages with a phishing email, it immediately puts an organization at considerable risk. Whether they impersonate a known brand, an internal system, or a trusted individual, stopping phishing attacks before they reach employee inboxes and providing awareness training is the key to staying safe. The CatchMark Cybersecurity and Technology Services teams have assisted multiple customers with implementing protective measure to fend off attacks. Reach out to us to find out how we can help you build a strong defense against this significant threat.