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Email Security Threats: You’ve Got Malware

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Companies in almost every industry rely on email. Whether it’s for collaboration or deal flow, email keeps businesses operating. With email being so critical, it’s no surprise that it remains one of the top attack vectors for cybercriminals.

One of the reasons attackers favor email is because they can go around technical security measures by focusing their efforts on humans. Human error is one of the top causes of data breaches. This is partly because human behavior is predictable, and attackers know how to abuse these patterns effectively. A recent example of this would be COVID-themed emails. Throughout 2020 cybercriminals have attempted to use COVID-themed emails to gain access to networks and data. Bitdefender’s 2020 Mid-Year Threat Landscape Report found that four out of ten COVID-themed emails were spam.

Email Security Threats

One of the first steps in improving your email security is being aware of the types of threats that exist. Below are some common email threats:


Spam emails can be used for both commercial and criminal purposes. Spam emails are bulk emails sent out to large distribution lists. While some companies create spam to advertise a product or service, attackers generate these emails to harbor something sinister. Cybercriminals use these bulk emails to deliver malware and other viruses.


In phishing attacks, cybercriminals use social engineering via email to get users to complete a task. Attackers gather information on their victims from social media and other public databases. They use this information to make their emails sound more personal in hopes of gaining your trust. The emails encourage you to take action like clicking a link or responding with sensitive information. Phishing emails often have a sense of urgency so that users don’t spend much time contemplating the request. Unfortunately, phishing emails are highly effective because they play on societal norms and human behavioral patterns.

Impersonation Fraud

Similar to phishing, impersonation fraud uses social engineering to provoke user action. Just as it sounds, cybercriminals pretend to be a trusted entity like your bank or even your boss. The attacker’s goal is to pressure the user into completing an action or interacting with malicious content. It may sound absurd that your boss asks you to send him $500 in gift cards immediately, but people are often too afraid or embarrassed to question the validity of a request from an authority. So, despite the feeling in their gut, they carry out the request.

According to a Mimecast report, impersonation fraud increased by 30% during the first one hundred days of COVID-19. Attackers took advantage of people’s fear of the virus, pretending to be entities like the CDC, WHO, and healthcare facilities. These emails would encourage people to download the latest information on COVID or click a link to donate to research. In reality, they were installing a virus on their computer or device.

Malware & Ransomware

Verizon found that email is still one of the top vectors for delivering malware. Malware and ransomware are deployed when a user downloads an attachment or clicks on a URL. Once deployed, attackers can access users’ workstations and move laterally through the company network.

Ransomware is a form of malware that allows attackers to encrypt files, workstations, or networks. Once they control your systems, they lock you out and demand payment in exchange for a decryption key.

Insider Threats

Businesses often overlook the potential dangers posed by internal threats. Without proper access management, a user could have unlimited access and control over systems and data. If an attacker gained access to these credentials, there are no limits to the damage they could do.

Data breaches can happen by accident. Users are human, and that means they have the potential to make mistakes. An unaware user that interacts with an attacker email or mistakenly clicks on a malicious link can cause a data breach.

Increasing Your Email Security

As with all aspects of cybersecurity, taking a holistic approach to email security is the best way to lower your risks of a breach. Consider implementing the following:

Email Security Platform

Email security platforms serve as one of your first lines of defense. These platforms filter emails looking for patterns, keywords, and malicious attachments and links. When it detects harmful content, it will prevent the email from entering the inbox by putting it into quarantine. From there, your security analysts can investigate further.

Next-Generation Antivirus

Increase your endpoint security by implementing a next-generation antivirus. Unlike traditional antivirus, next-gen antivirus uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify and respond to attacks. It can detect and block malware, including fileless attacks.

Security Awareness Training

Why do users engage with malicious emails? Often, it’s because they are unaware of security best practices and common cybercriminal tactics. Conducting regular user awareness training empowers users to recognize attacker emails and respond appropriately. Businesses should also perform routine phishing tests to measure the effectiveness of their security awareness training.

Password Policies

Two of the most common password behaviors are generating weak passwords and reusing passwords for multiple accounts. Attackers use algorithms that can guess common or weak passwords. Businesses need to implement password policies that require users to generate long and complex passwords. Reusing passwords is incredibly dangerous in that if an attacker has access to one account, they have access to multiple or all accounts. In essence, one breach leads to another. Imagine your employee uses the same password for both their social media and their company email. If their social accounts are hacked, the attacker can compromise the business email account, if not more.

Multifactor Authentication

If an employee’s email credentials are stolen, having multifactor authentication (MFA) makes it more difficult for an attacker to use them. MFA requires additional factors to confirm the user’s identity. Additional factors are typically codes from a text or app. So even if an attacker can obtain credentials, they more than likely will not have the user’s cellphone, which is needed for an authentication code.

Secure Archiving

Highly regulated businesses, particularly in financial services, are often required to archive all correspondence, including email. To maintain security and compliance, enterprises need secure email archives that use encryption and MFA. User controls for these archives should follow the rule of least privilege, limiting access to only those who need it.


There are different types of monitoring. Not all monitoring looks for cybersecurity incidents on your network. If a user installs malware from an email, actively monitoring your IT infrastructure will alert you to changes being made on user workstations and the company network in real-time. This allows your security team to respond quickly to prevent further damage.

Comprehensive Cybersecurity

Email is critical for day-to-day operations, which is why it’s a focal point for attackers. Mitigate your email security risks by partnering with an MSP who understands cybersecurity and compliance. At Coretelligent, we believe in providing clients with superior cybersecurity solutions that allow for maximum performance. CoreArmor, our security and compliance solution, provides holistic and robust protection with innovative solutions and monitoring from our in-house Security Operations Center.

Are you looking to enhance your email security or increase your overall cybersecurity posture? Call us at 855-841-5888 or contact us to learn how Coretelligent can help your business.

Learn how cybercriminals use stolen credentials in our blog, OCIE Alert: Protecting Client Data from Credential Stuffing.

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