What Clone Phishing Is and How to Avoid It?

Cyber attacks are common and dangerous threats for many organizations today, worldwide. Hackers know that data is the undisputed oil of the modern economy, and they are doing whatever it takes to steal sensitive information from unsuspecting businesses for financial benefits. 

One of the most notorious of these cyber attacks is phishing, the online fraud that involves tricking people into revealing sensitive information such as passwords or credit card numbers. In fact, a report by the Anti-Phishing Working Group on phishing activity trends reveals that phishing attempts are on the rise, with single months like December 2021 alone recording more than 300,000 attacks. 

There are various types of phishing, but let’s focus on clone phishing which is widely used by cyber criminals.  

What is clone phishing?

Clone phishing is a specific type of phishing attack in which the attacker creates an exact replica or clone of a legitimate email in order to trick victims into entering their personal information. The replica email will usually contain a link that redirects the victim to the attacker's own platforms, where the victims’ information will be collected. 

In other words,  cybercriminals often initiate clone phishing through email attacks where they create emails that appear exactly like those of the company they are cloning. In most cases, the cloned message might seem like a follow-up or update to the original legitimate message, making it more likely to fool the recipient. They use the same branding and layout as the original, making it difficult to detect. 

The hackers will often send the cloned email after the target has started communication with a legitimate party. The email is intended to trick the recipient into giving up sensitive information, which could be personal or relating to the company depending on what the hackers want.   

The key difference between other phishing attacks and clone phishing is that the original data is not affected but copied. The cybercriminals start by aiming for vital information on the target's security protocols and computer systems. Armed with this information, they can proceed to execute effective online scams

Attachments, links, fake websites, speed: the main attack tools

Clone phishing attackers often use spoofed emails that contain an attachment or link to a fake version of the original website i.e. a website that at a glance looks exactly like the authentic website that belongs to the company you are communicating with, safe for the URL. Once the victim lands on the fake website, it’s easy to be tricked around and end up giving out information..

The attackers may also fool the recipient into opening attachments that download malware into the target's computer or other devices. The malware will then allow access to files where the attackers will steal the information they want.

The success of a clone phishing attack depends on the email's quality and the attacker's speed. The email must seem as if it comes from a trusted source, in most cases, a renown brand, a vendor, or colleague. Secondly, the attacker must act fast after the victim falls for the trick. Cybercriminals steal as much information as possible before the target realizes they have been compromised.    

Examples of clone phishing that companies should watch out for

Clone phishing attackers will use various ‘smart’ approaches to win over their target. The common denominator though is that the message must look like it’s coming from a well known source. The contents of the fake message can vary depending on the criminals' ultimate goal. The contents are defined by what they consider to be the easiest way to win over the target to click on a link or attachment which will eventually take them to the dubious website. 

Here are a few common examples. Please watch out.

1. Reward messages

Reward messages are common clone phishing emails used by cybercriminals. You have probably received an email requesting you to collect coupons, rewards, or promotions by clicking a specific link. Be careful because it could be a clone phishing email. 

It could appear as if it comes from the store you visit most, making it less suspicious. Furthermore, the email may include a request to pay a processing fee or offer a reimbursement or discount for a particular item. Such emails can also claim to offer travel package price reductions and gift cards. 

For example, a clone phishing scheme attempted to collect personal information by pretending to be Costco Wholesale Corporation.

These messages will mimic a communication with a familiar company that is fond of using rewards to carry out their promotions. Fast moving consumer goods companies, like the example of Costco above, are the best ‘vehicles’ for the attackers. 

2. Virus warnings

The mention of a virus ignites instant attention among many people, and cyber criminals know this. They will send virus warning emails that ask the target to check for malware using the file that they have attached. These emails appear to come from the genuine antivirus company that the target’s organization probably uses, and unsuspecting employees end up opening the link. As you can expect, these virus warning emails contain malicious code that infects the recipient's device with malware.   

3. Urgent requests

Some clone phishing emails contain an urgent request that requires the victim to open a file or click a link. The sender, who is the attacker, does not explain the urgent message, thus raising the recipient's curiosity. The receiver is tempted to open the file or link to find out what the news is. 

Such a message may appear to come from a senior manager or CEO, and you will be in a hurry to know what the CEO wants, and fall victim to the attack. It is recommended to contact the purported sender separately whenever you are not sure about the authenticity of such communication. Use a text, call, or separate email to confirm if indeed the communication is originating from them.

4. Time-sensitive subject lines    

Clone phishing attackers can use time-sensitive subject lines that require the recipient to act fast and benefit from an offer. The subject line may read something like «click to get a refund» or «your discount expires soon.» Such emails will require you to click a certain link and fill in some personal information, so you don't miss the “opportunity”. 

5. Expired or compromised credentials

You have probably received an email that your password in a particular platform that you use regularly has expired and needs to be updated, with an update link provided. This is a famous clone phishing attempt that capitalizes on the sensitive nature of credentials like passwords. Unfortunately the link requests the victim for their username, old password, and new password. 

Preventing clone phishing: Best practices 

The best defense is a good offense, and the best practices below should help you build the best defense. But please note that these recommended practices can vary from company to company, based on factors such as the size of the organization and industry. What's important is to identify those practices that have the potential to offer the best defense against any, or most clone phishing attempts.

1. Spam filters and firewalls  

Spam filters are one of the best preventive measures against clone phishing attacks. Though not 100 percent accurate, they do a great job of filtering and separating emails, especially for users that receive a lot of emails. Spam filtering uses special software to analyze an email's content and origin.  

A firewall or a unified threat management solution searches for discrepancies between the actual and the apparent sender. It compares the actual links in the email and the displayed URLs. The firewall will flag any mismatch between the two. Email programs can be set to identify spoofed emails by comparing the expected sender and the alias based on the original thread.  You might want to check out these outstanding firewalls that are suitable for small businesses

2. Email scanning 

Confirming the legitimacy of all links and attachments before clicking them is one of the best practices that companies should deploy to avoid clone phishing attacks. 

Email scanning reviews all emails for spam, viruses, and malware. It evaluates attachments and links for suspicious domains and addresses, possible malicious attacks, and the ever famous email spoofing that is often used in clone phishing. 

Employees should also confirm that the links or attachment's URL begins with HTTPS, not HTTP. HTTP sends requests and responses in plain text, while HTTPS uses TLS or SSL encryption. This is why HTTPS is more secure than HTTP. 

You can also hover over a link without clicking on it to show the actual link. If the actual URL differs from the implied URL, it is a red flag that you should investigate before clicking on it. The displayed link may lead to a fake website.  

3. Clone phishing simulation

This involves creating a malicious email and sending it to the employees. The IT team then collects data on those colleagues who succumbed to the attempt by downloading attachments and clicking the links. 

The simulations allow leaders and email administrators to collect vital information on where the weaknesses are. They can then use this information to devise corrective action. For example, the simulation may reveal specific employee training needs and help create an effective training program to address the shortcomings. 

4. Incident response policies

Like other attacks, no tool, software, or system can offer 100 percent protection against clone phishing attacks. The IT industry is highly dynamic, and cybercriminals are busy devising new methods that are undetectable especially in the early days. Security measures might occasionally fail to detect and stop clone phishing attacks. Furthermore, many  employees will often click malicious links and download attachments without taking the time to review the legitimacy of each communication that comes their way. Almost everyone is always in a hurry to get their job done, and there is little that can be done to stop it. 

So for those instances when your defenses fail to detect and stop some phishing attack, you need to know what to do. A clone phishing policy will make this much easier because all the responsible people in the company, especially the security team domiciled in the IT department, will immediately swing into action with a clear idea of the entire action plan. They are not going to waste time trying to pull off a response strategy. Be sure to incorporate the clone phishing response measures in the larger network security policy and update employees accordingly.  

5. Employee training

All the best practices here may not help if employees don’t know what to do, leave alone understanding what clone phishing is about. Regular training on cybersecurity has proven to be a popular and effective practice that is helping organizations prevent attacks like clone phishing-don't ignore it. The training should take employees through some of the best ways to identify suspicious emails.

The most obvious is to check the sender's address validity. Though clone phishing emails appear identical to the original, legitimate one, there will always be tiny differences, such as a missing or added letter, that shows the email isn't legitimate. Also, remind them to check the email subject lines and signatures.

Another common method that is effective in identifying malicious emails involves checking for spelling and grammatical errors. It is rare for official emails to contain grammar and spelling errors, but phishing emails might contain such errors. However, this is not always the case; some phishing emails are error-free, making them appear even more legitimate.

Regular training will also ensure that employees are aware of the latest trends on cyber threats and the versions of clone phishing strategies that criminals are using. 

Conclusion

The fact that clone phishing is less detectable makes it extremely dangerous. While it might seem obvious, it’s never that easy to detect a small change in the sender and contents of a familiar conversation. After all, the message normally appears to be from a legitimate source that the target ‘knows’.  It’s even worse when such messages seem to be coming from senior management, as this often unsettles most employees who would want to attend and be done with the communication as fast as possible. In other words it's impossible to arrest the clone phishing challenge completely. But the best practices here should certainly reduce the chances of this vice to negligible levels. And in the unfortunate event that clone phishing hits your company, please activate the measures in your clone phishing policy. 

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