Introduction to Email Security

It's safe to say that most companies use email for a variety of business communications. In fact, it's not uncommon for all employees within an organization to have a work-related email address for communication purposes and as a convenient way to send and receive documents. Unfortunately, many workers and company leaders fail to realize that email can be a threat to the security of your company's entire network. Even though email has served as a convenient and common form of business communication for decades, the practice is rarely protected effectively, and hackers are aware of the potential vulnerabilities business email offers.

The earliest email systems allowed users to send messages to connected computers, usually within the same organization. Fifty years later, almost 300 billion emails are sent back and forth across the internet every day. While the ability to utilize the cloud to send emails across providers anywhere in the world has vastly increased the capabilities and convenience of email as a business tool, it has also opened up organizations to a variety of vulnerabilities. 
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Email is the most effective way for businesses to communicate globally and instantly transmit important documents. Hackers are aware of the convenience and continued growth of email, making it a natural target. When you combine email's large attack surface, the potential to exploit human error, and lax security practices, email is still one of the most effective ways for cybercriminals to reach their objectives. Email isn't going anywhere, and most businesses would prefer not to live without it. That's why it's essential to understand the basics of email security and how you can use it to protect your business against today's sophisticated email cyberattacks.

Why Email Presents a Dangerous Vulnerability for Cyberattacks

Verizon's 2019 Data Breach Investigation Report (DBIR) revealed that 94% of malware was delivered via email.  In 2020, 6.95 million new phishing and scam pages were created, and email malware attacks were up 600%. Further research shows that 85% of breaches include a human element, and 61% are related to stolen or misused credentials. Simply put, the nature of email, its wide reach across devices and the potential to exploit human error give threat actors a massive threat surface to work with. Even worse, email presents easier access to critical network elements than most other methods of attack. 

6 Common Email Cyberattacks

As if hackers don't already have enough reasons to love email, the platform offers a variety of options to launch a successful attack. Many of them rely on human behavior and the lack of security put in place by the provider and the user. These are the most common types of email attacks used to infiltrate business networks.

1. Phishing

The cause of 36% of data breaches, is phishing attackers seeking personal information to use them for malicious purposes. These attacks often come in the form of malicious emails that look like real requests leading users to reveal sensitive information or click on a link that results in the entry of malware or presents vulnerability hackers can exploit. Spear phishing is a targeted email that addresses a specific employee and uses personal information and urgency to get the user to act.

2. Spam

The sheer volume of spam makes it an effective tool in cyberattacks. While basic spam is considered unsolicited junk mail to be quickly deleted, some of these emails contain malicious links or attachments. Spam is a widespread use of attack that can be spread from user to user and is relatively cheap.

3. Identity Theft

Hackers can impersonate professional personal or business accounts to access sensitive personal information. Identity theft within a business network can include large thefts of customer names, addresses, social security numbers, passwords, etc. They can also occur when bad actors use stolen names and passwords to access user accounts and crucial parts of a company network.

4. Malware

When emails contain links or downloadable content, malicious files can cause major damage to your network. Malware is any piece of software that was written with the intent of doing harm to data, devices, or people. Common types of malware include ransomware, viruses, worms, botnets, spyware, Trojan horses, and rootkits. Different types of malware result in various attacks, including denial of service attacks, breaches, data collection, network access and control, and corruption of data.

5. Social Engineering

Typically considered a type of spear-phishing attack, social engineering depends heavily on human error. These attacks usually appear as an email from a trusted source, like HR personnel, coworkers, or your boss to gain critical information like passwords or access to confidential information. Social engineering can also target employees who use a work email for personal use by posing as an existing company the user is already acquainted with. By suggesting there is something wrong with an existing account, attackers can quickly get the user to click on a malicious link.

6. Business Email Compromise (BEC)

Also a type of spear phishing, business email compromise involves hijacking a business email account to initiate fraudulent wire transfers. The attack begins when a business executive's email is infiltrated. The hacker then used the account to trick employees into conducting unauthorized funds transfers.

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Trends That Make Email Attacks More Effective Than Ever

While you may occasionally hear that email is dead, the number of users is actually still growing. For most individuals in and out of the office, email is a part of daily life. Users depend on it for work notifications, interactions with their children's schools, appointments and medical interactions, and even bills. Businesses understand that consumers want convenience and email correspondence is one of the easiest ways to meet those needs. These recent events have likely contributed to the growth of email attacks.

Attacks Are Becoming More Sophisticated

Phishing and spear-phishing attacks have grown in sophistication to cleverly replicate professional email accounts with required personal details designed to lull the user into complacency. Such advancements make it easier to exploit human error.

Remote Work Is Growing

When the global pandemic forced many unprepared employees to work from home, the line between work and personal time quickly became blurred. As employees worked and played across a variety of company and personal devices, security tactics were often relaxed, and threat actors had twice as many ways to target email users. 

Best Security Practices Are Often Ignored

For most users, email is a set it and forget it platform. As a platform that is designed to be easily accessible, standard security settings within email accounts are often minimal. Without any training or experience to the contrary, minimal settings remain in place.

Cybercriminals Have More to Gain as the Average Ransom Demand Has Grown

Average ransomware demands surged by 518% in the first half of 2021, in comparison to 2020. The average ransomware payment is around $570,000, with the highest demand made of a single victim coming in at a staggering $50 million.

Emergency Events Create a Sense of Urgency

By exploiting fear and anxiety surrounding the pandemic, cybercriminals have created a variety of scams to solicit money from unsuspecting victims. Scams might include false free offers, opportunities to obtain tests or medical supplies, or threat actors masquerading as government agencies to request donations.

What Standard Email Security Has to Offer

When you look into finding adequate email security for your business, it's important to consider the security options that are included in your email platform. Email is designed to be easily accessible. For that reason, it could be said that email platforms are insecure by default. Email is like a virtual postcard. Once it leaves your mailbox, it passes through multiple servers, unencrypted, until it reaches its destination. This means that anyone with access to these servers, can glean information from your emails, and even change them. While email can be encrypted, it's a complicated process for an average email user. Why? No one else is doing it. 

It sounds like a popularity contest, but the truth is secure emails can only be viewed by other users who also use secure email. This can present an obvious problem for businesses that use email to communicate between coworkers, with customers, and with third-party suppliers. In order to make your email more secure by traditional encryption methods, every person that interacts with your business through email would need to be on board.

After learning this fact about email, you might be wondering what type of protection your email platform has to offer. Office 365 is used by over a million companies worldwide, with over 879,851 companies in the United States alone, using the office suite software. This makes Office 365 email an obvious choice for many companies. The popularity of the cloud-based platform makes it a prime target for attackers looking for an easy way to compromise email data. However, the Office 365 suite does offer some security features by default.

Exchange Online Protection (EOP)

As part of the standard Office 365 license, EOP is the cloud-based filtering service that protects your organization against spam, malware, and other email threats. EOP basically provides protection that filters spam from unknown senders and quarantines known malware. 

Microsoft Defender for Office 365

Offered in two plans that are available with levels of Microsoft 365 Business Premium license, Defender provides advanced protection against threats through sandboxing attachments. Features include safe attachments, safe links, anti-phishing protection, and real-time detections. Plan 2 offers added features like threat trackers, threat explorer, and automated investigation and response, but is only available for E5 license holders. 

For either of these methods of protection to effectively provide the protection advertised, they have to be optimized to perform on your network. For businesses with an on-site security operations center (SOC), the security offered by Defender could be an effective option when overseen by professional security analysts.

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How Can I Protect My Company Against Email Attacks? 

In today's corporate landscape, digital messaging and the transfer of files between employees, C-level execs, and the other integral individuals has become an essential component of the average workday. As technology continues to advance, and a wide range of devices become more interconnected, the lines between personal and professional communications become more blurred. Email communication isn't going anywhere and it's clear that it has evolved far beyond its original purpose. That's why it's essential for businesses to stop ignoring the security gap created by emails and seek effective ways to achieve secure communication.

What is Email Security?

Just like any type of technology, email is not automatically secure. Email security refers to the protective procedures and techniques that cover email accounts and the communications shared through them against unlawful access, data loss, and other forms of compromise. Your spam filter and email password are actually forms of email security. However, they are not advanced enough to protect against today's sophisticated cyber threats.

A comprehensive email security plan should include login security, email encryption, spam filtering, fraud protection, and cybersecurity education for all levels of employees. An effective email security solution will integrate with your email platform and utilize modern security technologies to provide Secure Email Gateways which filter malicious emails before they reach users' inboxes, Phishing Protection technology that automatically removes phishing attacks, and encryption to secure email communications.

How Advanced Email Security Works to Protect Your Business Network

There are a variety of security platforms that offer different methods and technologies to provide email security to businesses and organizations. You may make a choice based on convenient integration, customizability, and methods used by the system to isolate threats. For complete protection, your email security solution should offer some variation of these actions.

Protection Against Inbound Threats

A secure email gateway is your first line of defense and is deployed between your email platform and the internet. The gateway uses a combination of tools to scan incoming emails for malicious links and viruses that could indicate ransomware attacks, and inspects outgoing emails to avoid data leakage.

Automated Threat Isolation

Instead of generating thousands of alerts that will create extensive investigation from a full-time cybersecurity team, threats identified at the gateway level are mitigated or quarantined by the system. This can be accomplished with automatic quarantine, or with the use of AI to deactivate certain threats and insert warnings into the email describing the potential threats. 

Advanced Identification of a Wide Variety of Threats

To protect against modern, sophisticated cybersecurity threats, comprehensive protection should use multi-layered threat detection engines to identify attacks like spear-phishing, malware, spoofing, viruses, spam, and data breaches.

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Seamless Integration and Customizable Features

For easy deployment and continuous protection, your software needs to play nice together. If your organization depends on Office 365, your email security software should be designed to work with the platform. Additionally, for accurate detection of threats, your software must be customizable to identify and recognize normal behavior, so it will have the ability to identify abnormal behavior that could indicate account compromise.

Convenient Access to Quarantined and Archived Emails

Suspicious emails that are isolated from users' inboxes can offer valuable information into the way your email security software is performing and potential threat actors targeting your organization. The ability to quickly access and investigate these materials can help IT teams save time and streamline security operations.

Ongoing Support

To be effective, cybersecurity software must be optimized to work within your unique network. For companies without a full in-house cybersecurity team, the process of optimizing the system for best performance can include multiple hurdles that require professional assistance. Whether your email security solution is a part of Security as a Service (SaaS) or is designed to be used by your security team, support should be available.

Email Security Best Practices

No matter how secure your organization is, it's essential to address the human error component of email security. Sophisticated attacks address the human mindset and utilize tactics that exploit human behavior and emotions. Even the most advanced security solutions can't eliminate all chances of attack. Therefore it's essential to educate all users to take the necessary steps to avoid creating vulnerabilities that allow hackers into your network. By introducing these methods to your employees, you can help your personnel become your greatest protection against email threats.

Run Routine Phishing Tests

It only takes a single click from one person to allow a hacker into your network. Phishing emails are growing in frequency and sophistication, putting all your employees at risk. Phishing tests leverage social engineering and mimic real emails focused on a particular industry. By educating your staff about the appearance of phishing tests and conducting continued education to address failed tests, you can prepare your employees for real attacks and create a culture of security.

Always Use Multifactor Authentication

Many email attacks are designed to steal credentials that will allow access to a business network. This means that typical username and password login information have the potential to be compromised. Enabling multi factor identification can be one of the quickest and most effective ways to protect user identities. Multi Factor Authentication (MFA) simply requires two forms of proof that users are who they say they are before accessing sensitive information. This means that hackers who have your password will also need that second form of ID. Setting up MFA is often as easy as flipping a toggle switch and choosing the second form of identification.

Disable Auto Forward

Hackers can gain access to a users' mailbox through phishing attacks and forward emails to an outside address in an effort to steal information. Unfortunately, this can mean that all incoming emails can be silently copied to an external email account with no permission by the user. All devices used for business functions should have the auto-forward feature disabled to prevent such attacks.

Avoid Sharing Personal Information via Email

Would you feel safe sharing your social security number in an email? You shouldn't because it would make your personal information available to a variety of potential attackers. Furthermore, a company asking for such sensitive information in an unprotected format should raise red flags. No reputable company would ever ask you for private information in an email. Ensure that all employees are aware of the potential risks and that such behavior almost always indicates a scam. If a company asks for personal information or requests a password change through email, contact the company or individual directly to inquire about the request.

Use Trusted Wi-Fi Networks

An increase in remote work has led to an increase of employees that could potentially be depending on public Wi-Fi networks for access to sensitive company data. Anyone with access to public Wi-Fi could intercept your activities and obtain access to your confidential and business information. Once the hacker has access to the right information, he can access your systems at his leisure, as if he were you. If you use an unsecured Wi-Fi connection to allow file sharing across a network, hackers can also use the connection to distribute malware. Using Wi-Fi networks you don't trust is an invitation for hackers to infiltrate your network. Make sure all levels of employees understand the dangers.
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Invest in Email Security Software

Email security is essential for businesses to avoid attacks. Whether you depend on a trusted security provider or your internal team installs email security software, it's essential to use it correctly to avoid the risks posed by attackers. An integrated security solution can help you detect basic and advanced forms of email attacks and automate the actions to isolate and eliminate these threats.

It's true that email can create dangerous vulnerabilities that leave your business exposed to hackers. However, that doesn't mean your business has to seek another form of communication. With the right tools and practices in place, your business email can be as safe as the rest of your network. By adopting a multi-layered approach to email security, you can avert a variety of attacks, and enjoy the same level of convenience your business has always depended on. If you are overwhelmed with protecting your email or cybersecurity in general BitLyft will be there to alleviate your cybersecurity troubles. 

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