Tips for Fighting Email Security Threats


Posted on 2020-06-24 10:53:26, by Seawind

As 2020 approaches, email attacks are more prevalent and sophisticated than ever before. Threat actors recognize that email is the preferred method for confidential business communications, as well as an essential asset that organizations cannot afford lose access to for even a day. It comes as no surprise that, according to Verizon,  90% of cyber attacks are initiated via email.

What is Email Security?

Email security is about protecting sensitive information in email communication and accounts to secure against unauthorized access, loss or compromise. Email is often used to spread malware, spam and phishing attacks. Scammers fraudulently entice recipients to part with sensitive information, open attachments or click on hyperlinks that install malware on the victim’s device. Email is also a common entry point for attackers

looking to gain a foothold in an enterprise network and obtain valuable company data. Many businesses either believe that their email is adequately secured when in reality it is not or feel that they are “too small” to be targeted in a cyber attack. It is misconceptions like these that leave organizations vulnerable to attacks and the losses, decreased productivity and ruined reputations that often ensue.

Other organizations are aware that they are inadequately protected, but fail to recognize the fact that they cannot afford to be without effective email security. According to Ponemon Institute, only 40% of SMBs report that the technologies currently used by their organization can detect and block most cyber attacks and only  14% rate their ability to mitigate cyber risks, vulnerabilities and attacks as highly effective . 

This article will provide a brief overview of the dangerous attacks that currently threaten email users, offer advice on effectively securing business email accounts and outline email security best practices that will help mitigate your risk of suffering an attack.

Evaluating Different Types of Threats


Phishing is an attack variation in which threat actors send malicious emails designed to trick users into falling for a scam. The motive behind a phishing campaign is usually to get people to reveal financial information, credentials or other sensitive data. Phishing is extremely prevalent because it is cheap, easy and effective. For these reasons, phishing is currently the most commonly used attack vector on organizations, leading to 53% of all cyber security breaches.

Phishing campaigns are virtually free to carry out, but can be extremely costly to their victims, often resulting in data loss, identity theft or malware infections. Spear phishing is a highly targeted variation of phishing in which attackers send fraudulent emails that appear to be from a known or trusted sender in order to obtain sensitive information.

Spear phishing is becoming an increasingly popular method of attack because it is generally more successful than conventional phishing. As opposed to sending hundreds of thousands of relatively generic emails out at a time, spear phishing campaigns involve researching victims and utilizing advanced social engineering techniques and intelligence strategies to compose fewer, more convincing messages.

Whaling is another form of phishing designed to target high profile executives, or “whales”, and manipulate victims into authorizing high-value wire transfers to the attacker. Unlike traditional phishing campaigns, whaling doesn’t involve employees clicking on links or becoming infected with malware. Instead, the goal of a whaling attack is to trick an individual into disclosing sensitive information through the use of social engineering, email spoofing and website spoofing. 


Malware encompasses all software designed to disrupt, damage or gain unauthorized access to a computer system. Malware can perform various detrimental functions including encrypting or deleting sensitive data, stealing, hijacking or altering central computing functions and monitoring users’ activity without their permission. Malware attacks can have serious consequences for businesses.

According to Accenture, the average cost in lost productivity of a malware attack is 50 days, an amount of downtime that would have severe repercussions for any business. Although different types of malware have different methods of proliferating and infecting computers, 92% of malware is delivered via email.

Ransomware is a specific type of malware designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money in the form of untraceable Bitcoin is paid. It does this by encrypting a victim’s files until they have made the payment demanded by the attacker. Over the past year, ransomware attacks from phishing emails have increased by an alarming 109%. In 2018, one in three small to medium sized businesses worldwide were hit by ransomware and one in five were forced to shut down operations completely until the infection was removed. Data shows that the majority of small businesses are not able to recover from an attack, and 60% of SMBs go out of business within six months of getting hit with ransomware.

Unsolicited Spam Email

Spam email refers to unsolicited messages sent in bulk. According to Statista, spam accounted for an alarming 56% of email traffic in March 2019. Regardless of its purpose or origin, spam email should be recognized as a serious threat. Aside from the fact that it is extremely annoying, spam may contain malicious links or attachments and is often a vector for other dangerous attacks like phishing and malware. 

Computer Viruses

A computer virus is a type of malware which replicates and spreads by modifying other computer programs and inserting its own code. Computer viruses are extremely prevalent and can compromise sensitive information, destroy data, harm hardware and waste copious amounts of time, resources and energy. Email viruses, which constitute the majority of computer viruses, can be activated when a user either clicks on a link, downloads an attachment or interacts in some other way with the body of an infected email.

Zero-Day Attacks

A zero-day attack refers to a scenario in which threat actors exploit a vulnerability before developers have had the chance to release a fix for it. These attacks often occur without users’ knowledge and can carry hefty costs for businesses in the form of data theft, system downtime, lost productivity, damaged reputations and regulatory actions. According to Ponemon Institute, 37% of attacks that targeted businesses in 2018 were zero-day attacks -- a 48% increase from 2017.

Put an End to Email Security Threats

From downtime and business disruption to the loss of confidential information and reputational damages, the consequences of an email security breach can be catastrophic. And more businesses are at risk than you might realize: a 2018 report from cybersecurity leader Varonis indicated that 58% of companies have over 100,000 folders open to everyone, and 41% have over 1,000 sensitive files open to everyone.

Fortunately, there are a few easy best practices businesses can implement to step up their email security game: 

Invest in antivirus software.

This one might be a bit obvious, but it’s still worth adding to the list. Antivirus software can greatly reduce the threat of email security breaches against your business. Antivirus software alone isn’t enough to completely protect you, however, which is why it’s important to implement other best practices, as well.

If you need help choosing the right antivirus software, Consumer Reports has a solid buying guide.

Implement a secure email gateway.

A secure email gateway — sometimes referred to as an email security gateway — “is designed to prevent the transmission of emails that break company policy, send malware or transfer information with malicious intent.” By implementing a secure email gateway within your organization, you can filter incoming and outgoing email traffic and flag messages with suspicious attachments. A secure email gateway works best when paired with automated email encryption, which identifies outgoing messages containing potentially sensitive or confidential information and encrypts them so that, if they are intercepted, hackers cannot access their content.

Invest in a secure archiving solution.

Since creating a paper trail is important for both regulatory and legal reasons, most businesses have some sort of system in place that automatically stores email records within an archive. But what happens if that archive isn’t secure? All it takes is one hacker with the right credentials to access millions of bytes of sensitive data and put your company at risk. When shopping email archiving solutions, look for one that uses encryption, user authentication, role-based permissions and more to create a multilayered approach to security.

Create strong passwords and invest in multi-factor  authentication.

Email security only works if everyone within your organization takes it seriously, so make sure employees are using strong passwords. That means no “123456,” “password” or any of these other painfully common passwords — even if it means having to instate a company- wide password policy. For additional security, implement multi-factor authentication, which requires users to provide two or more pieces of evidence that verify their identity when they enter their login credentials.

Be wary of every email attachment.

Email attachments are an easy way for hackers to transmit malware and infect your computer. Due to this, it’s imperative that you carefully scrutinize every attachment before opening, even if it seems like it comes from a reliable source. (Remember, phishing attacks can be very convincing!) One easy way to determine whether an email attachment is safe is to look at the file extension — JPG/JPEG, GIF, TIF/TIFF, WAV, MP3 and MPG/MPEG are typically considered safe. Files with XLS, TXT or DOC extensions are less likely to be secure, so be sure to check with the sender before opening. Files with double extensions or EXE extensions should be avoided as a rule of thumb.

Whether you operate a small-scale nonprofit or an enterprise-level company, email security should be a top priority for every organization.  

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