Defending Your Inbox: Technological Strategies to Thwart Phishing Attacks

By: Shailendra Shyam Sahasrabudhe, Country Manager, India, UAE and South East Asia, Cymulate Ltd.

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In an age where cyber threats are on the rise, phishing attacks have become a pervasive menace, targeting organizations of all sizes with increasing sophistication. According to Swiss technology company Acronis, there has been a 24 percent increase in attacks per organization over the same frame. 

In the first half of 2023, the report observed a 15 per cent increase in the number of files and URLs per scanned email. Also, cybercriminals have tapped into the burgeoning large language model (LLM)-based AI market, using platforms to create, automate scale, and improve new attacks through active learning.

But before you think that these attacks are limited to corporate India, think again. In August 2023, the Supreme Court warned about a fake website created by cybercriminals for phishing attacks, where the attackers are soliciting personal details and confidential information through the site. The court’s registrar, in a circular, strongly advised against sharing and divulging any personal and confidential information on the phishing website.

These cybercriminals employ devious ploys that pose a substantial risk, often preying on unsuspecting employees through emails. To bolster defences against these threats, companies must use a multi-faceted approach that combines employee training with advanced technology solutions at the inbox level.

Despite substantial investments in email security, phishing and business email compromise continue to be prominent threats. According to Verizon’s 2021 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR), a staggering 43% of breaches in 2021 involved phishing and pretexting. Unfortunately, identifying potential security risks posed by employees remains challenging, often detected only after a breach has occurred.

While employee training is pivotal in the fight against phishing, technology plays an equally vital role. Implementing technical defences at the inbox level is essential to empower staff to thwart even the most cunning phishing tactics. Organizations must adopt flexible and all-encompassing unified security solutions. These solutions offer essential visibility, enabling them to comprehend various attacks, streamline contextual information, and facilitate

efficient resolution of any threat, encompassing malware, system vulnerabilities, and all points in between.

In this article, we delve into the key technological methods organizations can employ to enhance phishing awareness, detection, and reporting. These techniques, ranging from pre-filtering suspicious emails to visual cues for external senders, attachment scanning, and streamlined reporting procedures, collaborate cohesively to reduce the success rate of phishing campaigns. Given the convincing nature of many phishing emails, technological assistance is imperative.

The Tech Arsenal: Techniques to Counter Phishing

To design an effective anti-phishing strategy, companies must establish ongoing programs that continually evaluate their employees’ security awareness. This includes simulating phishing campaigns to identify potential target opportunities and assess employee preparedness. By pre-emptively testing security controls and simulating real-world cyberattacks, organizations can limit the risk of spear-phishing, ransomware, and BEC fraud.

Pre-filtering stands as the first line of defence against phishing attacks. It acts as a gatekeeper, aiming to ensure that only legitimate emails reach your inbox. Solutions like Microsoft’s Exchange Online Protection (EOP) provide pre-filtering capabilities by identifying and eliminating malicious phishing content using advanced heuristics and machine learning algorithms.

These technologies encompass Bayesian Filtering, a statistical method that calculates the probability of an email being spam based on its content and user behaviour. It also has machine learning algorithms with solutions like TensorFlow adapted to recognize phishing attempts based on historical data.

These systems provide Heuristic Analysis with rule-based methods that scan email content, structure, and attributes to identify phishing traits, as well as DNS-based blacklists that create real-time databases that block emails from known spam domains.

While this may only catch some sophisticated phishing attempt, it is highly effective at removing low-effort scams. By reducing inbox clutter and limiting employees’ exposure to blatant fraud, the pre-filtering process streamlines the defence against phishing.

External Sender Tags: Red Flags in Your Inbox

Phishing emails often originate from external sources, making it crucial to spot them. External sender tags offer a visual cue that the email is from an external source. Employees should be trained to be vigilant whenever they encounter these indicators, carefully verifying hyperlinks, sender addresses, and any unusual requests.

Phishing attacks often employ malware payloads sent through infected attachments. Scanning these attachments for potential threats or malware signatures at the inbox level can limit the success rate of phishing attempts. If unsafe attachments are detected, employees can be promptly alerted through automated notifications.

However, this approach is not without limitations, including false positives, zero-day exploits, and resource intensity. The future of attachment scanning may involve AI-driven solutions that adapt to new malware types more rapidly and cloud-based scanning to offload resource burdens from individual machines.

Reporting: Make It Easy and Quick

For inevitable instances where phishing emails make their way into inboxes, employees must have a seamless reporting mechanism to alert security teams. Ensuring visible “report phishing” buttons within the email interface and offering a step-by-step guide on proper phishing identification and reporting is crucial to combating threats effectively.

Security teams need dedicated channels to enable swift alert notifications and coordinated responses when phishing attacks occur. These channels can include specific email aliases, incident management systems integration, automated analysis, and alerting mechanisms.

These communication channels facilitate effective collaboration between employees and security staff, allowing both human detection and technological defences to work synergistically against phishing tactics.

Phishing attacks are persistent, but they are not insurmountable. By embracing advanced inbox tools and fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of successful phishing attempts. 

Technology, combined with employee vigilance, creates a formidable defence against these cunning threats. With the right strategies in place, businesses can thwart phishing attacks and safeguard their valuable data and assets.