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Pretexting: The Latest Threat to Email Security

Monday, June 12th, 2023

Verizon recently released its 2023 Data Breach Investigations Report- a comprehensive review of breaches and security incidents occurring over the last year. One surprising finding was a sharp rise in pretexting attacks. To properly respond to these threats, security professionals must understand the risks and prepare for exploitation attempts.

email breach frustration

What is a Pretexting Attack?

A pretexting attack is a type of social engineering scam where the attacker tries to convince the victim to give up valuable information or access to a service or system by creating a story or pretext.

These types of scams are a form of phishing. However, pretexting requires more effort than regular phishing attacks that aim to reach as many potential victims as possible and fool one of them into clicking on a malicious link.

To successfully execute a pretexting scam, attackers spend time learning about the target and use the information to manipulate human behavior to achieve a desired outcome. The threat actor may spend more time performing reconnaissance and engaging with the victim. This time investment means that pretexting is often used in attacks with a higher anticipated payout.

In the 2023 Data Breach Investigations Report, analysts found that 50% of all social engineering attacks are pretexting incidents. This represented a 2x increase from the 2022 report. With these types of attacks on the rise, organizations must understand the threat and how to protect themselves from these breaches.

What’s an Example of a Pretexting Attack?

In a business context, pretexting falls under the category of business email compromise scams. Every pretexting scam includes two main elements- a plausible situation and a character. First, by creating the right situation to present to the victim, it is possible to fool the target into believing it is legitimate. Secondly, selecting the right person or organization to impersonate is equally essential.

If the attacker fails to pick a plausible scenario or chooses the wrong entity to impersonate, it drastically reduces the likelihood of success. That’s why these schemes require surveillance and research to achieve their aims.

Some common pretexts or scenarios that you should watch out for include the following:

  • A CEO or manager asking for an urgent transfer of funds to an unusual account
  • A vendor or supplier asking for payment of an unpaid invoice
  • A coworker asking for a password to an account they should already have access to

If the attacker has adequately researched the target, they can be quite convincing in impersonating a legitimate source and convincing them to hand over valuable information or assets.

How to Protect Against Pretexting Attacks

Instilling a healthy dose of skepticism in employees is always recommended. Proper training and reminders can help employees remain suspicious of requests for information and funds they do not expect. In addition, implementing the right policies and technologies can help reduce the risk of falling for a pretexting scam. Some additional steps to take to secure your email accounts include:

  • Deploying SPF, DKIM, and DMARC to prevent spoofing.
  • Using email filtering tools to flag suspicious email activity.
  • Installing anti-malware software on all devices can help mitigate the effects if a malicious link is clicked.
  • Deploying multi-factor authentication to guard against the risk of password theft and stolen credentials.
  • Updating business processes to ensure financial payments are appropriately vetted and signed off on.

Do you need help securing your email accounts? Contact LuxSci today to learn how we can help your business avoid falling victim to pretexting scams.

How to Avoid Business Email Compromise Attacks

Tuesday, July 5th, 2022

Business email compromise (BEC) attacks are on the rise and are poised to eclipse ransomware as the biggest threat to cybersecurity. Since 2016, $43 billion has been stolen through BEC. Even more concerning, there has been a 65% increase in BEC from 2019 to 2021. This article explores what business email compromise scams are and what steps organizations can take to avoid them.

business email compromise

What are Business Email Compromise Attacks?

In business email compromise scams, attackers infiltrate or impersonate a legitimate corporate email account. They then send phony invoices or initiate contract payments that trick unsuspecting businesses into wiring money to criminals.

These scams rely on humans making the wrong choices. Some examples of business email compromise scams include:

  • A criminal impersonates a vendor and sends a fake invoice to the accounting department.
  • Someone who appears to be the company CEO asks an assistant to make a wire transfer to an unknown account.

Some of the tactics used include:

  • Domain name spoofing: Domain name spoofing involves changing the sender’s “From” address to match the recipient’s domain in the message envelope. Criminals can also use a legitimate domain as the “From” address and a spoofed “Reply-To” domain in the message header.
  • Display name spoofing: The attacker registers a free email account to impersonate a vendor or employee. The attacker would configure the display name to match the employee’s name and then send phishing messages from this account. This technique is effective because recipients often only look at the display name, not the email address. In fact, many email clients will only show the display name when viewing the message, making it easier to hide the sender’s real identity.
  • Lookalike domain spoofing: The attacker may register fake domain names that contain characters that look similar to those in the actual domain name. For example, replacing the lowercase “l” in luxsci.com with an uppercase “I.” The criminal will send phishing emails from this domain to trick the recipient into thinking the message is legitimate.
  • Email Account Compromise: Another common tactic is taking over legitimate email accounts that have been compromised through malware or social engineering to steal data or funds.

How to Prevent Business Email Compromise Attacks

One of the reasons that business email compromise attacks are increasing is because they are often successful. Email filters and content scanning can do little to stop sophisticated social engineering attacks. Nevertheless, there are steps that organizations can take to stop BEC scams.

SPF, DKIM, and DMARC

Implementing technical controls can help prevent BEC scams from succeeding. As discussed above, many attacks use display or domain name spoofing to impersonate company accounts or individuals.

Sender Policy Framework (SPF), DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), and Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC) are anti-spoofing email authentication techniques that use DNS records to validate the sender of an email. Ensure the organization’s domain has valid SPF, DKIM, and DMARC records. Make sure the email provider analyzes all inbound email traffic using these tools.

Viewing the headers of a suspicious message is also an excellent way to detect fraudulent domains. See Gmail, Outlook, Apple Mail, and More: How to View Headers in Email to learn how to see these in the most popular email clients. This can help reveal the actual sender of someone using a spoofed domain or display name.

In addition, implementing email filtering and scanning tools can help flag suspicious links and protect against phishing attacks.

Employee Training

Helping employees recognize business email compromise scams is essential to avoiding them. All employees, not just those with access to sensitive data or financial information, should understand the tactics used by cybercriminals in BEC scams.

Employees should be aware that attackers can use the information they share online via social media against them. Birthdates, pets’ names, nicknames, and information about time off can be used to impersonate others and trick individuals.

Ensure employees are implementing strong passwords and using multifactor authentication to prevent account compromise and stop them from changing account credentials.

Policy and Procedures

Creating clear policies and procedures can help alleviate confusion and prevent individuals from taking action without thinking. For example, organizations should have clearly defined procedures for how and when vendors will send invoices and be paid. That way, when an unexpected email comes in from a “vendor,” employees will know what to do. It’s also essential to keep up-to-date contact information for vendors and employees. Many BEC schemes ask recipients to call a phone number with account credentials or payment information. If the number differs from the contact information on file, it’s wise to pause and call the contact through established channels to confirm the message’s accuracy before proceeding.

By creating clearly defined and enforced policies and procedures, it will be very obvious when deviations occur. Empowering employees with the tools they need to identify business email compromise scams will help protect your company and keep financial information secure.