Phishing emails fool most employees. But is this their problem or email's?

Test finds people struggle to distiniguish real from fake

More than a decade after phishing attacks became the standard way of getting around corporate defences, all but a tiny minority of employees still fall for this kind of email, a McAfee test of UK-based workers has found

After crunching numbers on 1,755 people who took the firm's online Phishing Test, eight out of ten failed to spot at least one bogus email in seven with finance and HR departments among the worst performers.

Employees in more technical departments such as R&D were generally the best performers, with all types of workers particularly susceptible when spam emails included spoofed addresses. Six out of ten people fell for UPS scams if the return address looked genuine while half were fooled by a similar tactic using an eFax notification.

"Phishing continues to pose significant security risks for businesses and consumers alike. More worryingly, perhaps, is the lack of education around how to spot a phishing email amidst the many emails we're sent on a daily basis," commented McAfee EMEA CTO, Raj Samani.

The fact that almost anyone will be fooled by phishing emails is axiomatic so is there any point in worrying about the issue?

One might take issue with McAfee's methodology, which is based on asking subjects to distinguish real from fake emails, which seems slightly unfair. The best-targeted phishing attacks are indistinguishable from real emails and some even indeed use named individuals and hijacked but legitimate accounts.

The issue also isn't whether people can spot phishing emails but whether they click on links. It is the level of interaction that aids attackers not simply the level of recognition.

Within hours of McAfee posting the phishing quiz results as part of its quarterly Threat Report, the firm's approach attracted the ire of at least one security rival.

"It's time we stop blaming people for falling prey to phishing attempts as represented by such quizzes," said Imperva CTO, Amichai Shulman.

"It's one thing to expect an employee to refrain from opening an apparent executable file attached to a slurred, out-of-context email. It's totally unreasonable to expect normal human beings to inspect carefully an attached or downloaded file that visually looks like a PDF especially if the accompanying message is in context."

This raises the obvious question of why a decade of spam filtering, malware detection and web link scanning still doesn't seem able to stop routine phishing attacks almost everyone agrees are probably impossible to stop.

The low down: even with ISP adoption of technologies such as DMARC, the medium of email is simply too easy to subvert. The attackers know that even the most suspicious users will eventually open a bogus email at some point.

This hasn't stopped a number of firms developing phishing education systems designed to help people spot and better react to phishing attacks when they happen, for instance PhishMe. Other such as PhishLabs offer to counter the phishing infrastructure more directly.

Phishing tests sometimes go wrong as a US Army commander discovered earlier this year when attempting to test the phishing abilities of his staff. The test email mentioning an imaginary breach of a 401k savings plan was only sent to a small group of people but was convincing enough that it was forwarded to thousands of others - chaos ensued in several US government departments.

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