Email is one of the most common channels of communication, used by over 4 billion people worldwide. It’s no wonder therefore that cyber attackers find email to be such a convenient tool, making it their number one attack vector.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common types of email attacks. We'll also discuss how to protect your business from these attacks as part of your overall network security measures. Learn and stay safe out there!
The most common Types of Email Attacks
One thing you need to know about email attacks is that they come in all shapes and sizes, and can be difficult to defend against if you don’t know what to look for. Regardless of the email attack type, the ultimate objective of the attackers is to steal identity information, trick the victim into performing certain actions such as making a financial transaction, or holding the victim at ransom until they meet a given condition.
So the types of email attacks we have here can display the kind of characteristics that relate to any of these fraudulent objectives.
Here we go:
1. Email Phishing Attacks
Email phishing attack is the most deployed form of cyber attacks via email. In this type, the attacker pretends to be emailing from a legitimate company or organization. The main aim of phishing attack is to steal sensitive identity information (like username and password) or personal or financial information.
Some of the most common types of email phishing attacks on commercial businesses include spoofing, clone phishing, spear phishing, whaling, pharming and email reply chain attacks:
Email spoofing is a type of email phishing attack where the sender forges an email address and makes it look like the email is coming from a legitimate source, such as a bank or colleague. This can be done by hacking into an email account and sending messages from that account, or by creating a fake sender address.
The goal of email spoofing attacks is to steal personal or financial information such as passwords or credit card numbers.
Spear phishing attacks
Spear phishing attack is similar to spoofing. But instead of aiming at random organizations or people within an organization, the spear phishing attackers aim at a specific individual or organizations. They often include personalized information in the email to make it look more legitimate.
Whaling attacks are the most sophisticated type of email attacks. They're targeted at high-profile individuals within a company, and the goal is to extract sensitive information such as a company’s business secrets or financial data.
The good news is that whaling attacks are less common. However, they can be very costly for companies if they're successful.
Pharming is a type of email phishing attack that uses fraudulent methods via email to direct a victim to a fake website instead of the real sites they are familiar with. The user is usually unaware that they've been redirected, and the hacker can use this method to steal information like passwords, usernames, and credit card numbers.
Pharming can also be done through DNS hijacking, where attackers get control of the Domain Name System (DNS) and change the addresses of legitimate websites so that users are taken to fake ones instead.
Email reply chain attacks
An email reply chain attack is a type of phishing attack that uses Reply-To headers to trick recipients into responding to a malicious email. The attackers will send out an email with a forged Reply-To header that points to their own address, so when the recipient responds, the response goes to the attacker instead of the original sender.
This can be used to collect sensitive information from the victim, such as login credentials or financial information. Reply chain attacks are difficult to detect because they often use genuine account addresses and only slightly modify the message content.
If you receive an unexpected email from someone you know, be careful before replying. Check that the Reply-To header matches the original sender's address.
2. Malware Attacks
Email malware attacks are when a hacker sends an email to a victim with a virus or malware attached to it, in the hope that the victim will open the attachment and infect their computer.
These types of email attacks are on the rise, as hackers become more sophisticated in their methods. It's important to be vigilant about checking for suspicious attachments, and to never open an attachment from an unknown sender.
Here are some of the most notorious examples of malware email attacks:
Adware is a type of malware that displays intrusive pop-up advertisements on a device. These ads often take up the entire screen and can be difficult to close, which can lead to frustration and wasted time.
Adware is often installed on devices as part of a bundle when downloading files sent to email. It can be difficult to determine whether or not an application contains adware, so it's important to be careful when downloading files from unknown sources.
Scareware is a type of email attack that uses fear and urgency to try and get you to click on a link or open an attachment. The goal is to scare you into thinking that your computer is infected with a virus or that your personal information is in danger.
Scareware can often look very convincing, so it's important to be aware of the signs. Some common red flags are poor grammar, mismatched fonts, and incorrect logos.
If you're ever in doubt, it's always best to contact the company directly to verify the legitimacy of the email. And if you do click on a link or open an attachment, run a virus scan immediately.
These emails usually contain an attachment that once opened will encrypt all the files on a computer until a ransom is paid or certain conditions are met. They lock you out of your own device, making it difficult or impossible to use your device or data without meeting the attackers’ conditions. Check our guide «How to handle ransomware attacks».
3. Business Email Compromise
One of the most dangerous types of email attacks is a Business Email Compromise (BEC). In a BEC attack, the hacker will impersonate a high-level executive within the company and try to get employees to wire money to fraudulent accounts.
BEC attacks are becoming increasingly common, and unfortunately, they often go unreported. The best way to protect yourself from a BEC attack is to be aware of the signs and be suspicious of any requests for money or sensitive information that come from executives in your company.
Spam emails are those that are unsolicited and generally unwanted. They can often be identified by their suspicious subject lines or attachments, and are often sent in large quantities to as many people as possible.
Spammers are often looking to scam their recipients by using highly sophisticated and convincing tricks via spam email. If you think you may have been a target of a spam attack, report it to your email provider immediately.
5. Email Bombing
Email bombs or DoS email attacks work by bombarding the email server with a high volume of emails, so much so that it can't keep up and legitimate emails can't be delivered. This type of email attack can be carried out by anyone with a basic understanding of email, making it a popular choice for criminals.
Email bombs can be sent manually, or they can be part of a larger attack campaign. They're often used as a form of protest or to disrupt business operations, and can be very difficult to stop or prevent. The best way to protect yourself from email bombs is to have strong spam filters in place and to keep your antivirus software up-to-date.
How Common Are Email Attacks?
Email attacks, while often overlooked, are quite common and as we have already seen, email is the number one attack vector.
Why? Email is an easy way to gain access to a system. It's often the first step in a bigger attack. Once an email is compromised, the attacker can gain access to other systems within the company and can even use that email account to send fraudulent emails to other people.
Phishing attacks are the most notorious of all email attacks. In fact a Cybersecurity Report by Cisco indicates that 86% of the surveyed organizations admitted that at least one individual within the company clicked a phishing link sent to their email. The report also established that phishing attacks account for about 90% of all data breaches in organizations.
How to Prevent Email Attacks
The best way to prevent email attacks is to be vigilant about the emails you open and the attachments you download. Only open emails from people you know and trust, and be suspicious of any unexpected attachments.
Here are more useful practices to help you prevent these attacks:
1. Educate employees on email best practices
According to Verizon’s Data Breach Report, over 80% of data breaches are due to a human element including errors and misuse. So you want to make sure your staff know how to avoid obvious mistakes in addition to understanding how to spot a scam, how to keep their passwords safe, and how to identify fake emails. If everyone is on the same page when it comes to email security, your business will be less likely to fall victim to an attack.
You can also create a company-wide policy on email usage. This will help set expectations for employees and make sure everyone is aware of the risks associated with email.
2. Use encrypted email services
Most email services are not encrypted, which means that anyone with access to an email account can read messages. If you're sending or receiving sensitive information, it's best to use a service that encrypts your emails. This will ensure that your information is private and cannot be accessed by unauthorized individuals.
3. Install an email security solution
Email security solutions are a must for any business. They can help to prevent email attacks from happening in the first place, and can also help to protect your business from data breaches and other harmful attacks.
There are a number of different email security solutions available, so it's important to research and find the one that's best for your business. Some of the most common types of email security solutions include spam filters. Multi factor authentication is also a great solution.
It's also important to keep your software up-to-date. This includes your email security solution, as well as all of your other software programs such as firewalls. Updates often include new security features that can help to keep your business safe from these email threats and security attacks.
4. Backup your data
It's important to back up your data on a regular basis. This can be done in a few different ways, but the most common is to back up your data to the cloud.
Cloud backups are great because they're automatic and you don't have to worry about remembering to backup your files. They're also accessible from any device, so you can easily access them no matter where you are.
You should ensure that the employees who handle the most critical data have a backup email account in case their primary account is compromised. This will ensure that they still have access to emails if something happens to their primary account. Your backup strategy should also include disaster recovery plans, for the day when email attackers strike with damaging impact.
5. Limit the number of users per email
If your organization operates some shared emails for some reason, please limit the number of people who use that email. This will help reduce the chances of someone accidentally clicking on a malicious link. Even better, stop this practice and discourage your employees from allowing colleagues to access their emails.
6. Install Antivirus software
You should ensure that all staff emails are protected by a strong anti-virus software, which can help protect you from malicious emails. If one opens an infected file, anti-virus software can help quarantine the file and prevent it from spreading.
7. Try cybersecurity providers
Trying to balance your core business and cybersecurity on your own can be an uphill task especially if your business is intense on the customer and operations side. You can cut off this headache by making use of credible cybersecurity services. Cybersecurity companies have the tools, experience and skills to protect your business from all these email attacks alongside other forms of cyber attacks.
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Email Attacks: Conclusion
Email attacks have been increasing in frequency and sophistication. While many people think they are not a target because they do not have anything worth stealing, this is not the case. Any organization or individual can be impacted by an email attack, any time.
Train your staff adequately and deploy the rest of the best practices we have outlined here to ensure you stay safe from the rising cases of email attacks.