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Anti-Phishing Testers Put Themselves on the Hook

Pretending to be the IRS, even in self-defense, turns out to be a bad idea

5 min read

Illustration of a person sitting on a hook
Illustration: iStockphoto

Do you want to break into computer networks or steal money from people’s bank accounts without doing all the tedious hard work of defeating security systems directly? Then phishing is for you, where a convincing email can be all that’s required to have victims serve up their passwords or personal information on a platter. With so many people working from home and doing business online thanks to Covid-19, this year is proving to be a phisher’s paradise, with a myriad of new opportunities to scam the unsuspecting. Solicitations from fake charities, along with emails purporting to be from government organizations like state unemployment agencies, health agencies, and tax collection agencies are flooding into people’s inboxes.

it’s not just individuals who have to worry. Because so many organizations have shifted their employees to remote work, cybercrime targeting “has shown a significant target shift from individuals and small businesses to major corporations, governments and critical infrastructure,” according to Interpol. In response, IT departments have ramped up their efforts to stop staffers giving the store away. But sometimes these efforts have caused unexpected collateral damage.

The urgency IT departments feel is understandable. Interpol predicts that phishing attacks—which already made up 59 percent of Covid-related threats reported to it by member countries—will be ramped up even more in the coming months. And the nature of the threat is evolving: for example, false invitations to videoconference meetings are a phisher’s new favorite for trying to steal network credentials, says the Wall Street Journal.

The human element is central to phishing, so government agencies and corporations have increased their employee phishing-training, including the use of phishing tests. These tests use mock phishing emails and websites, often using the same information contained in real phishing emails as a template, to see how their employees respond. When done well “for educational purposes and not as a punitive ‘gotcha’ exercise, employees can improve their ability to spot” and properly report phishing attacks, states Ryan Hardesty, President of PhishingBox, an anti-phishing training and testing company.

It took weeks of effort by furious TSP officials and multiple government agencies to unravel what happened, who was responsible, and to put an end to it.

But, Hardesty acknowledges, a delicate balance is required to make the phishing lure attractive without causing knock-on problems.  This can be seen in two incidents in 2009 and again in 2014 involving U.S. federal employees who contributed to the government’s Thrift Savings Plan, which is the government’s version of a 401(k) plan.

The employees received emails, ostensibly from the TSP, claiming that their accounts were at risk unless they submitted their personal account information to a designated website. However, both times the emails were actually part of phishing security tests conducted by different government agencies.

The first time it was the U.S. Department of Justice who sent out the email, while the second time, it was a U.S. Army command. In both cases, multiple employees who received the phishing test emails sent them to friends and family in numerous government agencies, which caused widespread concerns if not panic. Furthermore, in both cases, the people involved in the phishing tests did not let the TSP know what they had done, either before of after. Indeed, if they’d given advance warning, TSP lawyers would have immediately sent them cease and desist letters. And the lack of candor afterwards meant that it took weeks of effort by furious TSP officials and multiple government agencies to unravel what happened, who was responsible, and to put an end to it.

The 2014 U.S. Army phishing test was especially successful in stoking fears because TSP had suffered a breach exposing the personal information of 123,000 members in 2012. The email claimed that TSP accounts had been breached again and members needed to change their passwords.

Other similar incidents have also occurred, including one in 2015 where a Belgian regional government phishing exercise used a supposed booking from the French-Belgian high-speed train operator Thalys as bait (Thalys was unamused,) and another where the Michigan Democratic Party conducted a phishing exercise in 2018 that involved a highly sensitive voter database, but did not inform the Democratic National Committee, which was also, funny enough, not amused either.

Mark Henderson, a security specialist with the Internal Revenue Service’s Online Fraud Detection and Prevention department told me that the problem of phishing email tests “going awry” seems to be proliferating. The IRS, for example, has seen an uptick in reports of phishing emails purporting to be from the IRS or Department of the Treasury that are not actual phishing attacks but mock attacks from organizations conducting internal phishing tests. On top of being illegal— Henderson points out that phishing emails are prohibited from using the IRS name, logo, or insignia in a manner that suggests association with or endorsement by the IRS—they can cause undue distress to those being tested, as well as increase the administrative workload for the IRS and Department of the Treasury and so divert attention from real threats.

While there aren’t publicly available statistics on phishing exercises that create collateral damage, I suspect that many other U.S. government organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Food and Drug Administration, are also experiencing the same problem. State and local governments are almost certainly dealing with phishing test spillover effects, as well as governmental organizations abroad.

Admittedly, it is highly tempting to use Covid-19 related issues for phishing lures as these issues are on everyone’s mind. If you are a U.S. taxpayer still awaiting your economic impact payment, any email that looks like it might be from the IRS will immediately get your attention (NOTE:  no one from the IRS will reach out to you by phone, email, mail or in person asking for any kind of information to complete their economic impact payment).

The security industry has not come to a consensus on the sensitivities regarding pandemic-related bait. Cofense, an anti-phishing company, declared in March that it decided to remove all Covid-19-themed phishing templates from its repositories, and called on the anti-phishing industry to do the same. However, other anti-phishing companies took issue with that request. Perry Carpenter, KnowBe4’s strategy officer, wrote that with the rapid acceleration of phishing attacks they were seeing, phishing security testing needed to be ramped up. In fact, Carpenter argued that “not conducting phishing training during this time amounts to negligence.”

There are no accepted industry standards yet for conducting phishing exercises, although the UK National Security Centre has published an abundance of practical guidance on what to do and what not to do in conducting these sorts of tests.  It also published very useful information on how organizations can reduce phishing attacks, which is really the first line of defense.

In speaking with Ryan Hardesty at PhishingBox, he also believes that conducting phishing security tests should continue, but only if they are well-considered in light of Covid-19 sensibilities and have an objective of education, not shaming. Hardesty makes it clear to PhishingBox clients about appropriate rules of engagement, like not using the IRS as bait in their phishing exercises. Most clients are careful, but when they’re not, it can spark a call from the IRS.  As Hardesty states, “you never want a call from the IRS concerning a phishing exercise that originated on your platform.”

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