Part of what RISC provides during our regular education sessions is awareness of phishing emails which may lead to sites that collect sensitive information such as login credentials or passwords, and may contain attachments to infect your computer systems. Cybersecurity is defined as the “protection of information and systems that connect to the Internet. It is in fact protecting your personal information or any form of digital asset stored in your computer or in any digital memory device. It includes detection and response to a variety of cyber (online) attacks” according to the Office of the National Coordinator for HealthIT Information Technology (n.d.).
Just last week, the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT, 2014a) published “Ebola Phishing Scams and Malware Campaigns” as a cautionary statement to the public.
“Users are encouraged to use caution when encountering these types of email messages and take the following preventative measures to protect themselves:
Here are some Email Safety Tips gathered from experts:
- Keep Your Mail Client, Web Browser, and Operating System Updated: Software updates are important, as the bad guys regularly find holes and try to exploit them. Software updates close some of these holes and help protect you. Many operating systems offer automatic updates. If this option is available, you should enable it. If you are running an outdated browser and email client, you could be compromised. (If you have Java installed, you should it or at least disable the browser plugin to protect yourself, too.)
- Use Antivirus Software: On Windows, antivirus software is an important layer of protection. It can help protect you from both mistakes and software bugs that allow malware to run without your permission. If you are using a corporate email system, have a discussion with your Information Technology (I.T.) Department about all the levels of required antivirus; Gateway, Email Server, and Client.
- Be wary of unsolicited attachments, even from people you know – Just because an email message looks like it came from your mom, grandma, or boss doesn’t mean that it did. Many viruses can easily “spoof” the return address, making it look like the message came from someone else. If you can, check with the person who supposedly sent the message to make sure it’s legitimate before opening any attachments. This includes email messages that appear to be from your ISP or software vendor and claim to include patches or anti-virus software. ISPs and software vendors do not send patches or software in email as attachments.
- Don’t Run Dangerous Attachments: If you get a PDF file from someone, it might be safe to open if your .PDF reader and antivirus software are both completely up to date. However, if you suddenly get an email with a .exe file or another potentially dangerous type of file you aren’t expecting – even if it’s from someone you know – you probably shouldn’t run the attachment. Exercise extreme caution with email attachments – they are still a common source of infection.
- Be Careful of Links: Clicking on links provided within the body of an email message is not a good idea. Rather than clicking on a link, which can actually be hyperlinked to something entirely different, open a new tab of your browser and type the address in. When you receive an email that has your bank’s web address in it and it displays as a hyperlink, it could easily map to a scam or virus-laden site.
- Trust your instincts – If an email or email attachment seems suspicious, don’t open it, even if your anti-virus software indicates that the message is clean. Attackers are constantly releasing new viruses, and the anti-virus software might not have the signature. Additionally, 0-day, (Zero Day) attacks are attacks that do not have patches developed or deployed yet, and your antivirus will not recognize them as a threat. At the very least, contact the person who supposedly sent the message to make sure it’s legitimate before you open the attachment. However, especially in the case of forwards, even messages sent by a legitimate sender might contain a virus. If something about the email or the attachment makes you uncomfortable, there may be a good reason. Don’t let your curiosity put your computer at risk.
- When sending email with sensitive information, remember to encrypt it. Some email applications allow you the option of sending encrypted or not encrypted. When in doubt, encrypt. If you don’t have an email encryption solution, use an alternate secure method and contact I.T. to add this to their budget requests.
- Do business with reputable companies.
- Information about known phishing attacks is also available online from groups such as the Anti-Phishing Working Group (http://www.antiphishing.org).
Additional important security tips from the US-CERT (2014b) is knowing how attackers use certain social skills to obtain information such as social engineering and phishing attack.
What is a social engineering attack?
In a social engineering attack, an attacker uses human interaction (social skills) to obtain or compromise information about an organization or its computer systems. An attacker may seem unassuming and respectable, possibly claiming to be a new employee, repair person, or researcher and even offering credentials to support that identity. However, by asking questions, he or she may be able to piece together enough information to infiltrate an organization’s network. If an attacker is not able to gather enough information from one source, he or she may contact another source within the same organization and rely on the information from the first source to add to his or her credibility.
What is a phishing attack?
Phishing is a form of social engineering. Phishing attacks use email or malicious websites to solicit personal information by posing as a trustworthy organization. For example, an attacker may send email seemingly from a reputable credit card company or financial institution that requests account information, often suggesting that there is a problem. When users respond with the requested information, attackers can use it to gain access to the accounts.
Phishing attacks may also appear to come from other types of organizations, such as charities. Attackers often take advantage of current events and certain times of the year, such as
- natural disasters (e.g., Hurricane Katrina, Indonesian tsunami)
- epidemics and health scares (e.g., H1N1)
- economic concerns (e.g., IRS scams)
- major political elections
The goal is not to become the victim. It is important to protect your privacy. Be suspicious of unsolicited phone calls, visits or email messages if others are asking questions about employees or colleagues. Always verify the source directly. It is not good practice to provide personal or financial information via email unless it was through a verified source and encrypted route. Take the extra step to install and maintain anti-virus software, firewalls, and email filters to reduce spam.
Be aware and keep abreast of technology. Lastly, be vigilant for signs of identity theft and consider reporting the attack to the police or file a report with the Federal Trade Commission (http://www.ftc.gov/). For more information on Identity Theft, please visit https://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/alerts/theft.html.
Cybersecurity. (n.d.). Office of the National coordinator for Health Information Technology. Retrieved from http://www.healthit.gov/
How To Geek. (2013). Why opening an email is safe. Retrieved from http://www.howtogeek.com/135546/htg-explains-why-you-cant-get-infected-just-by-opening-an-email-and-when-you-can/
US-CERT. (2014a). Ebola phishing scams and Malware campaigns. Retrieved from https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/current-activity/2014/10/16/Ebola-Phishing-Scams-and-Malware-Campaigns
US-CERT. (2014b). Avoiding social engineering and phishing attacks. Retrieved from https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/tips/st04-014