As many as 54 percent of organisations in the UK have reported an increase in email-based phishing attacks launched by cyber-criminals, with such attacks being launched across the entire organisational hierarchy from the C-suite, the finance department, HR staff members, to even trusted third-party vendors.
Email has, over the years, become an important vector for cyber-criminals, allowing them to carry out a number of malicious activities from distributing computer viruses, targeting organisations with malware and ransomware, and carrying out phishing attacks either to obtain credentials or to lure employees into transferring money or divulging enterprise secrets.
The use of email by cyber-criminals has, in fact, become so rampant and audacious that in the past twelve months, 92 percent of ransomware attacks globally were delivered by email, resulting in long email downtime in affected organisations across the world.
According to security firm Mimecast who carried out a survey of 800 global IT decision-makers to gauge the effectiveness of email-based attacks, the success of such attacks is largely due to the fact that less than one in ten organisations in the UK and beyond continuously train employees on how to spot cyber-attacks.
"Email-based attacks are constantly evolving and this research demonstrates the need for organisations to adopt a cyber-resilience strategy that goes beyond a defence-only approach. This is more than just an ‘IT problem,’ said Peter Bauer, chief executive officer of Mimecast.
"It requires an organisation-wide effort that brings together many stakeholders, puts the right security solutions in place and empowers employees – from the C-suite to the reception desk -- to be the last line of defence," he added.
Nearly 40 percent of IT decision-makers interviewed by Mimecast told the firm that their CEO undervalued the role of email security as a key element of their security programme, despite the fact that cyber-criminals have made effective use of emails to lure employees into divulging sensitive data.
C-Suite staff are also believed to be among the most vulnerable to email-based attacks. According to the IT decision-makers, 31 percent of C-level employees are likely to have accidentally sent sensitive data to the wrong person in the last year compared to just 22 percent of general employees.
This could be a direct result of the lack of training imparted to employees on how to spot cyber-attacks. In the UK alone, only 7 percent of organisations continuously train employees, with 61 percent performing training just once a year. Globally, 11 percent of organisations continuously train employees on how to spot cyber-attacks, 24 percent offer monthly training, and 52 percent perform training only quarterly or once a year.
According to Mimecast, the lack of continuous training is because 33 percent of decision-makers want to focus on increased investment in technology and 29 percent want to see improved business processes. Instead, enterprises must ensure that upper management staff are trained first to set the tone of a company's security culture, that cyber-security is placed into the function that manages overall risk mitigation for the organisation, and that security controls and risk management programmes are benchmarked against peer organisations on a regular basis.
The effectiveness of email-based attacks is also boosted by the fact that in 61 percent of organisations worldwide, infected users spread infections to devices used by other employees via infected email attachments or malicious URLs. Therefore, imparting continuous cyber-security training to employees will go a long way in ensuring that infections are limited to affected systems and not allowed to spread across all devices.
While email is one of the most preferred vectors for hackers to target organisations with ransomware, it is also used frequently to launch phishing attacks either to obtain credentials or to lure employees into transferring money or divulging enterprise secrets.
In the past twelve months, 40 percent of organisations worldwide have seen an increase in the volume of impersonation fraud requesting a wire transaction, while 39 percent have seen the volume of requests for confidential data increase. This, coupled with human error, ensures that organisations' secrets are easily obtained by third parties without having to steal such details physically.
For example, 31 percent of IT decision-makers said their C-Suite staff sent sensitive data via email to third parties by accident, 22 percent said such mistakes were committed by low-level employees, 20 percent said sensitive data was shared via email in response to a phishing email by employees, and a similar number said C-Suite staff also fell for phishing emails and shared sensitive data with criminals.
In order to achieve such a high rate of success, cyber criminals often impersonate trusted third-party vendors, company employees, as well as CEOs. Such impersonation has resulted in 32 percent of organisations suffering data loss, 25 percent experiencing reputational damage, and 20 percent suffering direct financial loss.
"We all know that minimising cyber-risk is about much more than just having the right technology in place. It’s also about services, people and processes. With cyber-attacks increasing, all organisations need to do more to put all employees in the best possible position to help reduce cyber risk," said Kirill Kasavchenko, principle security technologist, NETSCOUT Arbor, to SC Magazine UK.
"There are instances where deploying more technology isn’t the answer. Sometimes you need to start with your workforce and help them play a more active role in spotting and addressing cyber-threats. This research really hammers home the reality that many employees remain unprepared. Dealing with cyber-threats is a continuous process, so performing cyber security training just once a year simply isn’t enough to adequately reduce business risk.
"Improving training is essential, and getting this right can help nurture a good cyber-security culture across the whole organisation. One of the key elements of that is being attentive to the technologies that we use every day. For example, email is something we access throughout the day – sending hundreds of emails across the week – so it can be easy to become complacent to the security risks at hand. Shifting to a more cautious mindset can help employees act as an extra barrier to stop hackers in their tracks," he added.