Email spoofing is a common tactic hackers use in phishing and social engineering attacks. Spoofing trends tend to increase around popular shopping holidays in the U.S., including Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day, and the recent LinkedIn data scrape has already led to an uptick in spoofing attempts. With these threats in mind, it’s important to understand how spoofing works and what you can do to protect yourself, your employees, and your business from falling victim to a spoofing attack.
- What is email spoofing?
- How to identify a spoofed email
- How to prevent email spoofing in 2021
- Email spoofing is a constantly evolving threat
What is email spoofing?
Email spoofing is a technique involving seemingly innocuous emails that appear to be from a legitimate sender. Spoofers forge or manipulate email metadata like the display name and email address to make the intended recipient believe they are real. Sometimes spoofers can create a legitimate-looking email address by changing only one or two letters in a business name, like “Arnazon” instead of “Amazon” or other letter swaps that take a close eye to spot.
Hackers frequently use email spoofing in tandem with other social engineering techniques to impersonate an official source, whether it’s a colleague, partner, or competitor. These strategies attempt to manipulate the emotions of the intended target; sometimes this is accomplished by creating a false sense of urgency around a fictional problem or preying on the victim’s compassion. Social engineering tactics usually include spear phishing or whaling.
Spear phishing attacks target specific victims with malicious links or attachments in the body of a spoofed email. When a hacker’s intended target clicks on the link or attachment, it launches a malware attack before the victim can do anything to stop it. Similarly, whaling tactics attempt to convince C-suite executives to take a specific action (like clicking a link or attachment) or divulge confidential information about the business. When combined with these tactics, a successful spoofing attempt can have dramatic consequences.
How to identify a spoofed email
How can we discern a spoofed email from a legitimate one? Consider the email in the screenshot below:
First, the subject line, sender email address, and footer are all indicators that the email is illegitimate. If it was a real email from Sam’s Club, the subject line should be free of errors and strange formatting. The domain of the sender email address would be samsclub.com or some variation thereof instead of blackboardninja.com, and the mailing address in the footer would be the Sam’s Club headquarters address instead of an address in Las Vegas.
Additionally, the body content of the email has a vague call to action—what is the “Loyalty Program” and what must one do to earn the so-called “prize”? Unless the recipient is expecting an email like this, there is very little context that indicates where the link leads. This is typical of phishing emails.
Finally, the fact that Gmail automatically categorized this email as Spam doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a spoof, but it’s definitely a red flag. Spam filters can be overzealous at times, which is why important emails like order confirmations and shipping updates sometimes end up in the wrong folder. However, the purpose of a spam filter is to prevent gullible recipients from falling into a spoofed email’s traps.
How to prevent email spoofing in 2021
Although email spoofing techniques are becoming more sophisticated with each passing day, there are a few tactics that can help prevent a successful email spoofing attack. These include the DMARC protocol, regular employee training, and consistent company branding.
The Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC) protocol is one of the most effective defenses against email spoofing. It’s a customizable policy layer of email security that enables authentication technologies including the Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM). In effect, DMARC can protect your organization’s domain from being used for malicious purposes. It also sets parameters for detecting forged sender information, so you can rest assured that an email is actually from the indicated sender.
Read more: What is DMARC?
As with most cybersecurity efforts, employee training helps create a safeguard against attacks that are able to slip past technical defenses. Set aside time at least once per year (if not more frequently) to teach your employees what to look for in a legitimate email as opposed to a spoofed one. Then, perform follow up tests to see who may still fall victim to a spoofing attack. This will help ensure everyone on your team has the right information to act appropriately when a spoofed email inevitably lands in their inbox.
Email spoofing can impact your customers, too. That’s why consistent company branding in your marketing emails is a key element in preventing a successful spoofing attempt. Your email branding should resemble that of other marketing materials, including your website, social media accounts, and print materials. When your customers can easily recognize a legitimate email from your company, it will be just as easy to recognize one that is spoofed.
Email spoofing is a constantly evolving threat
As long as your business uses email to communicate internally and externally, email spoofing will be a threat. In fact, email spoofing accounted for more than $216 million in losses in 2020 alone, according to the FBI’s IC3 2020 Internet Crime Report. Spoofed emails may look different from one day to the next, but you can’t afford to let your guard down when it comes to suspicious emails.