Email is one of the easiest ways to reach the right people at the right time with the right message. Through this medium, businesses have complete control over who they’re talking to, and how; and when used optimally,
email has the power to turn prospective buyers into loyal, long-standing customers.
Email is one of the most trusted forms of communication, offering the highest return-on-investment (ROI), averaging about $36 in return for every $1 spent. Email also brings many meaningful benefits to the businesses that use it: it’s cost effective and efficient; the messaging can be flexible in terms of the content shared and objectives driven; it gives businesses scalability and real-time potential, while providing real, measurable results through the tracking of key data such as open rates, click-through rates, and conversion rates.
While the benefits of email for business communications and marketing are many, there remain fundamental security flaws due to the way email systems have been built and designed, which has resulted in it being both a target and a tool for cybercriminals that seek to distribute malware, spam, and scams.
The security challenges of email
As email use in businesses across the globe increases, and as the sophistication of email attacks grows, it’s important to have an understanding of the various forms email security threats take, to be better prepared to recognize and prevent them:
- Spam: this category of email threat is defined as unsolicited email messages, usually sent in bulk. While spam is typically sent for commercial purposes, it can also be sent by botnets, and serve as a malicious attempt to gain access to a device or network.
- Phishing: this is a type of online scam in which cybercriminals attempt to impersonate legitimate organizations to steal sensitive information. This usually takes the form of a link in the content that delivers users to a fake website and prompts their submission of personal or sensitive information.
- Malware: malware (short for ‘malicious software’) involves the use of malicious code by cybercriminals to infect, explore, or steal, the information on one or more devices. This code is often spread through email messages (94%) and is a growing cause for concern, with 28% of organizations reporting a destructive or ransomware (a form of malware) attack in 2022, and 17% of organizations suffering a breach thanks to a business partner being compromised.
- Spoofing: this is a technique used by cybercriminals to trick recipients into believing the email they’ve received is from a business or person they can trust.
- Business Email Compromise (BEC): this security threat involves cybercriminals gaining access to a business email account and imitating a trusted figure. Traditionally, attackers target companies that conduct the electronic transfer of funds with suppliers and customers across the globe.
Tips to spot an email threat
While it’s good to have a general awareness of the different types of attack, there are a few things that can help users recognize email threats, hopefully reducing some of the risk that email communication brings:
- Pay attention to the email address. Recipients of an email should always check the header to review the sender’s email address. In cases of spoofing, attackers use an email header to mask their identity and impersonate legitimate senders. If they outright forge email header information, they’re also known to use other tactics to achieve a similar result, such as creating a domain that looks very similar to the legitimate sender’s domain. While it’s advisable to be suspicious of every email received, the reality of peoples’ limited time and attention doesn’t always allow for it. The good news is that there are tools that allow you to analyze email headers easily and efficiently for authenticity and trustworthiness.
- Be wary of information verification requests. If you receive an email from an individual or organization that is asking you to verify your information, it could contain malware. Avoid clicking on any of the links in the body of the email and take extra steps to verify the sender’s email address before you proceed with verifying anything.
- Demands for urgent action. Often, attackers try to generate a sense of urgency throughout their emails to pressure the recipient to take action without paying too much attention to the details of the mail. If an email demanding urgent action also includes grammar and spelling errors, treat it with suspicion, and seek assistance from the key IT security role players within the organization.
- Don’t just click on the link. One of the most common ways cybercriminals take advantage of unsuspecting users is to get them to click on a link that sends them to a website that may have malware or attempt to capture their private information. Check the URL of any link in the email, and if it’s hyperlinked text, hover over it to verify the link before clicking on it.
- If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Everyone’s heard of these – you know, those emails where you’re asked to click on a link, or open an attachment, to receive an impressive reward of some sort (often monetary). Email scams like this often target the desperate and vulnerable, as shown by the many Covid-19 related scams offering grants or stimulus payments in exchange for personal information.
Best practices for email security in 2023
Businesses all over the world are realizing that cyber risk isn’t just an IT issue – it’s a critical business vulnerability. As the business world evolves, the intersections between email, people, and information, carries increasing levels of risk with cybercriminals attempting to exploit every avenue, and becoming more and more sophisticated at doing so.
Here are five of the key best practices for email security that can help businesses and people stay ahead of email security threats, minimizing potential damage:
- Education is key. In a recent study, McAfee found that 97% of people around the globe are unable to identify sophisticated phishing emails, while IBM reported that 95% of cyber security breaches result from human error. Because phishing attacks rely on false pretenses and social engineering to deceive, equipping people with the knowledge and tools they need is one of the most important steps in ensuring email security.
- Invest in extra layers of security. 91% of all cyberattacks are reported to begin with a phishing email to an unexpected victim. Since people tend to be the most vulnerable part of an organization when it comes to phishing, scams, and fraud, it’s clear that additional layers of protection are needed. DMARC is a great tool for this, preventing unauthorized use of your email domain, and it’s become less of a ‘nice to have’ and more of a MUST. Not only does the DMARC protocol assist with keeping out illegitimate emails, it’s also an important tool for brand protection, saving businesses the cost of repairing their reputation and trust-relationships in the wake of impersonation – or worse.
- Use two-factor authentication (2FA). One of the standard practices, 2FA is free and easy-to-use as an effective security measure. Requiring users to provide two pieces of identifiable information before signing in, 2FA makes it significantly harder for attackers to gain access to an account, even if they’ve already got their hands on the password. While most websites and services don’t activate 2FA by default, it’s important that users are made aware of what it is and how to activate it so they can do so on every account they use, both professional and personal.
- Implement continuous monitoring and threat intelligence. Given that it can take time to discover and remedy a security threat, an important step in improving security is to put tools and techniques in place to continuously monitor email systems for any threats. Alongside the potential to detect a threat, these tools can also gather threat intelligence, empowering key role players to identify and block new threats before serious damage is done.
- Partner with a Managed Service Provider. The amount of technology needed for optimal security can seem overwhelming, particularly as the gap between the knowledge of threats, and the technology required to prevent them, continues to grow. This is where the services of a Managed Service Provider (MSP) can prove highly valuable, as they take care of the expertise and technology needed to ensure business security, helping with a lot of the services mentioned already. An MSP assists with a variety of security assurances, including the secure setup of email systems, ensuring connections and data transfers are encrypted, and keeping software up to date through timely and efficient installations.
Apart from the reputational damage, and compromised trust with customers, suppliers, and clients,
experts believe that cybercrime is set to cost the world $8 trillion annually in 2023.
The reality is every business in every industry is at risk from email fraudsters. In order to know exactly what to do to increase protection against these threats, it’s important to understand your level of risk of exposure to fraudulent email activities. We’ve developed a free tool to help you identify how secure your domain is. Try it here.
Now, more than ever, it’s important for brands to equip themselves with the knowledge and tools to protect their businesses, and those they do business with, from email-related security threats. To find out more about how Sendmarc and our partners can help do this, contact us today. Or, visit our services page for more information on how we can help secure your email communication.