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August 05, 2013


Gone Phishing: How Your Employees' Bad Security Habits Can Impact Your Business

Phishing is the practice of sending an e-mail that appears to originate from a legitimate representative of a company or government agency in an effort to get the recipient to click on an embedded link. The link takes the individual to a cleverly disguised imposter of a legitimate website. Here, the targeted victim is asked to enter various account credentials that the criminal records and uses later to access the individual's accounts. A refined version of phishing, known as "spear-phishing," targets specific employees to try to gain access to their companies' financial accounts or files. At mid-sized to large companies, such an e-mail could appear to be an internal directive from HR or IT.

While early phishing efforts were easier to spot through their spelling and grammatical errors or poor company logo reproductions, many criminals have become more sophisticated. They now produce well written and convincing messages with high-quality graphics that make the messages appear legitimate and create a sense of urgency. In some cases, a criminal's success in writing a convincing message comes through the practice of social engineering. He or she "researches" targeted individuals by gathering information about their interests, activities, family, and friend names, travels and other personal information through their social network sites. The criminal weaves some of this information into the phishing message. For example, if the criminal sees you are an avid golfer, you might get an e-mail that seems to be from a sporting goods company asking you to enter a sweepstakes contest to win a set of clubs. Most people would never think of providing information such as birthday, place of birth, or other personal data to a stranger they meet on the street, but often do so without hesitation on social websites.

Many employers provide periodic workplace security training including warnings not to click on links that are unknown or appear to be suspicious. Despite such efforts, an investigation conducted after a criminal online intrusion generally reveals that an employee did such a thing to start the chain of events. That employee's actions resulted in the disclosure of the information necessary to illegally access the company's accounts or to download malware into the employee's computer that sniffed for the account credential information and later relayed it to the criminal. Unfortunately, many small businesses neglect this education and find themselves victims of major financial losses that can threaten the viability of their entire businesses.

There are hardware and software solutions that provide some layer of protection to a business, but the best protection is having educated and aware employees who receive frequent training and reminders about the importance of solid workplace computer safety practices. Employees must be made to understand that lax or weak online security practices in their personal lives can be harmful to themselves and to their employers.

Tell us: how do you protect yourself and your business from phishing?

Photo of David LottBy David Lott, a retail payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

August 5, 2013 in cybercrime, fraud, malware | Permalink

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