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A Defense Approach to Mitigating Phishing Attacks

A Defense Approach to Mitigating Phishing Attacks

Purpose-built security tools are designed to solve for the ever-evolving threat landscape led by APTs, Nation-States, and Hacktivists, but is your organization accounting for the internal threats posed by your authorized users?

Most phishing attacks require help from the end user to be successful

phishing cartoon by Peter Broelman

Source: Peter Broelman

The latest Verizon Annual Data Breach Investigations Report places email as the highest initial vector point for malware infections. These cyber attacks require help from the end-user to be successful; according to KnowBe4, 38% of untrained users will click on a phishing link delivered through email. Attackers know that an untrained user base can be an easy way to enter a company’s network and pivot to sensitive data.

Based on the rapidly increasing and diverse external threats to your business, you must ask yourself several important questions:

  1. What are we doing to prevent these attacks from reaching our users in the first place?
  2. How are we educating them to make the right decision if one does?
  3. Will our users know how and be comfortable promptly reporting an incident if they fall prey to a phishing scam?
  4. What is our response plan if a user’s credentials get compromised or they inadvertently give out sensitive information?

Your first line of defense: prevent the exploit attempt from reaching the user

The first step in your defense-in-depth strategy to preventing successful phishing attacks is to stop links from ever getting to your users by implementing purpose-built and environment-tuned technical controls. Since many attackers are gaining access through phishing emails, consider what controls you have in place to lock down access to personal email accounts from work. You should also think about how your email gateway spam filters are configured, and how often true positives get through them. If you’re still dialing this in, then your attention needs to be towards your firewalls. Integrate firewalls with up-to-date threat intelligence feeds to block IOC IPs and domains.  Endpoint detection and response (EDR) tools are another critical control layer to monitor and investigate events on endpoints.

Your next line of defense: security awareness training

Ideally, every organization prefers to be proactive preventing security issues, catching attackers and identifying and patching vulnerabilities pre-exploit, but is this practical?  In addition to the technical measures mentioned above, you can get proactive by educating and training your employee base to recognize and report potential social engineering attacks like phishing or vishing. In order for the training to be effective, you must position security awareness training as more than just a compliance box to check, but instead a meaningful and necessary measure to keeping the business alive.  This could be the difference between your users acting as a detriment to the business, costing financial or reputation damage – or as your greatest assets, protecting your business.

Before you push out the training, spend some time making sure your executive team is on board.  This buy-in and support will go a long way in creating a culture of caring about security awareness training at your organization.

Customize the content of your training

In order for the training to really resonate with your employees, don’t use a one-size-fits-all, generic program.  Instead, make the content relevant to your industry and business and relatable to your employees’ roles whenever possible.  To make this even more memorable, use real world examples instead of abstract concepts.  The most effective trainings are interactive, with a mixture of text, videos, and short question quizzes.

Get our downloadable infographic to empower your users to recognize potential unsolicited email phishing attempts.

Don't take the bait: email phishing infographic

Refresh your users frequently

Users are increasingly fatigued, or their attention is laser focused on their day-to-day job duties. This means tasks that do not have frequent reminders are quickly forgotten. That’s why it’s important to treat user awareness training as much more than just a yearly box to check. Research has shown users respond best to incremental refreshers throughout the year, especially those who failed their first training attempt. Frequent, repeated security awareness aptitude tests give users the reinforcement they need to remain vigilant. Best practices suggest that almost all users who fall for a simulated attack will have learned the most secure response by the fourth practice attempt so it’s best to ensure these users are only failing their practice exams, and not real world exploitation tests.

Make it easy to verify communication legitimacy and ‘sound the alarm’

What are you doing in your organization to remind your users that you’re there when they’re in an ambiguous situation?

Imagine you get a call that your credit card was used for fraudulent purposes. Would you freely provide the caller your personal information, or would you first verify the call is really coming from your bank? To aid with verification, banks include their phone numbers directly on the back of their cards to encourage users to confirm information. Likewise, having a way for your employee base to report suspicious phone calls, texts, and email messages is one of the strongest tools you can give users to sound the alarm when an active campaign is in front of them.  Set your users up for success by making important phone numbers and email addresses readily available and easy to access.

Beyond the user: how to detect phishing & successful social engineering attacks

In addition to preventative technical controls and empowering users via comprehensive and frequent trainings, you must have a system in place for detecting and responding to active social engineering attacks.

Test your controls

Do you have the capability to run incident response attack simulations and identify users who engage in the complicit risky behaviors so you can reinforce their training? Run example phishing simulations with campaigns that apply to the most common internal workflows such as UPS package deliveries, emailed files from a printer or scanner, or an order confirmation.

If communication best practices are being followed, any user who suspects they’ve been compromised should alert your security team rather than, for example, a malicious server.

Develop content rules to detect suspicious activity

Even with layered controls in place and continual security awareness training and testing, it is still possible a social engineering attack could be successful. Do you have use case content configured within your technical controls to watch for IOCs such as abnormal logins or strange website visits, or even to report on users who have triggered the anti-virus on their workstation? When someone makes a cyber-mistake that needs remediation, the best course of action is to get them clarification and correction as close to the incident in question as is reasonable to reeducate them. For example, when a user clicks on a malicious email, the response should be equally swift: identifying who clicked the link, remediating the new vulnerability, and ultimately educating the user as efficiently as possible to prevent further incidents.

In closing, security needs to be more than just deploying your largest, most expensive firewall and calling it a day. With social engineering attacks on the rise, it’s important to make it as easy as possible for your user base to stay secure and do the right thing.

To recap, protect your organization from social engineering attacks by:

  • Preventing exploits from reaching them by tuning your existing security tools to your environment
  • Providing custom security awareness training and frequent refreshers
  • Making it clear and simple for users to report suspicious activity
  • Setting up a consistent way to use simulation campaigns to test and then improve both your training’s effectiveness and your controls efficacy
  • Developing use cases, updated periodically, to detect potential social engineering attacks and practicing incident response procedures to mitigate as swiftly as possible

This formula will provide more effective results than just a yearly training, allow your organization to respond to incidents with aggregated information, and ensure that security is a team sport.

Detect phishing attempts with ReliaQuest GreyMatter

ReliaQuest’s SaaS security platform, GreyMatter, unifies and integrates existing SIEM, EDR, multi-cloud, and third-party apps to deliver a centralized, transparent view across the environment. With GreyMatter’s investigative capabilities, data from multiple technologies is streamlined, aggregated and visualized in a fraction of the time, allow your team to investigate potential phishing attacks quickly. Efficiency can be further enhanced with GreyMatter’s automation capabilities – where repeated actions like resetting passwords or disabling accounts can be automated to ensure faster remediation and consistency across incidents.

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