Have you ever been told, “Don’t feed the trolls”? This piece of advice is golden in online forums and social media, advising us not to engage with those seeking to provoke. Similarly, in the world of cybersecurity, there's an equivalent saying that is every bit as prudent: “Don’t respond to phishing emails!”
It’s easy to underestimate the danger, with many people viewing phishing emails as more of an annoyance than a genuine threat. Yet, even a single response, perhaps driven by curiosity or annoyance, can open Pandora’s box of cyber trouble.
In this blog post, we will uncover what happens if you respond to a phishing email.
How responding to a phishing email signals to attackers that they've reached an active account.
The effects that conversing with an attacker has on your email security tools.
What an attacker can do with your information.
The risk of attackers exploiting human nature to build rapport through regular communication.
Why the attack might not be immediate after responding to a phishing email.
The steps you should take if you suspect you've responded to a phishing email.
1. You’re Telling Attackers Where to Attack
By responding to a phishing email, you're basically waving a big bright flag, saying, “Hey! This is an active email account!” For cybercriminals, this knowledge is valuable. Why? Because it confirms that your email address is valid and frequently monitored.
If you respond to a phishing email, you're essentially playing a digital version of "Marco Polo" with the attacker. When the email is sent to you, the attacker is yelling "Marco!", your response is the equivalent of you shouting "Polo!" loudly and clearly, signaling that you’re present, engaged, and ready for them to hone in on!
2. You’re Misleading Your Email Security Tools
Just like us, our email security tools learn from patterns. A continued back-and-forth conversation with a phishing email might lead your email security tools to assume the sender is genuine.
This technology is cleverly designed not to impede our daily conversations and activity. It learns who to trust by monitoring who you communicate with. It's a feature, not a bug.
The result? Your email security tools may inadvertently prioritize emails from that suspicious sender in the future—even when they contain more sinister content!
Let’s look at a realistic scenario to see how responding to a phishing email can play out.
When Trusty Tools Are Tricked
This scenario underscores the dual-edged nature of adaptive email security — its learning capability can sometimes be misled, turning a feature into a potential vulnerability.
3. You’re Unwittingly Handing Out Your Info
Many believe their email signature—typically containing their name, job title, phone number, and sometimes even a physical address—is harmless. After all, this is just the basic 'get-to-know-me' info you'd share at a networking event, isn’t it?
In the wrong hands, this kind of information can be used against you. Here’s how attackers could leverage the data from your email signature:
Impersonation: Knowing your full name and job title, cybercriminals can impersonate you, especially in a fast-paced organisation where one doesn’t have time to scrutinize every email.
Picture this: an email, apparently sent by you, lands in your colleague’s inbox, urgently seeking confidential files. Considering its source, why would they hesitate?
Reconnaissance for Spear Phishing: With specifics like your direct number or your role in the company, attackers can tailor their approach to be much more believable.
For example, if they know you’re the “Chief Information Security Officer”, they wouldn’t waste their time with the trusty ol’ “You’ve won 1 million dollars email for the net noobs”. They might craft a more targeted message related to software updates or a security breach.
Using Your Location: By knowing where you are, an attacker can craft more convincing phishing messages based on your locality, using familiar businesses, events, or news. This technique is refered to as contextual phishing.
To illustrate how an attacker could take advantage of the information provided in your email signature, let's play out a real-world scenario that starts in your office on a regular day and ends in disaster.
Putting It All Together for the Grand Scam
This example shows how easy it can be to be fooled. We naturally trust and want to help, especially when something feels important or when it seems like a person of authority is asking.
4. You’re Unknowingly Building Trust With The Enemy
We all approach unfamiliar emails with a touch of caution. However, we humans are naturally inclined to trust over time.
Building rapport, even with a potential threat, is almost second nature to us. It's how we’re wired. Recognizing this vulnerability is the first step.
Let's look at another real-world example to demonstrate how responding to a phishing email can end in catastrophe.
How Trust Is Built and Taken Advantage of Over Time
This fictional, but highly plausible story showcases how cybercriminals can be patient, grooming their targets for weeks or even months! This slow-burn approach ensures that when they strike, you’re less likely to see it coming.
5. You’re Entering the Attacker’s Long-Term Radar
You clicked reply on that suspicious email, thinking, "What's the worst that could happen? If they respond, I'll just hit delete." While this line of defense has its merits, there's a catch: the actual attack might come further down the track when your guard is down.
With your response, you could inadvertently become a ‘regular’ on their hit list. What starts as generic phishing can gradually morph into intricate spear-phishing schemes tailored just for you. As they gather more intel, their approach becomes more genuine and, consequently, more dangerous.
The more they know, the more convincing and dangerous their tactics become!
But the story doesn't end with that lone attacker. Once marked as 'responsive' or 'vulnerable', your details might be traded in the dark corners of the web, exposing you to further risks.
You’ve Responded to a Phishing Email. What Now?
Realizing you've responded to a phishing email can be alarming, but taking swift action can significantly minimize potential damage. The steps you should take depend on the nature and extent of the information you've divulged. Here’s a practical guide on what to do next:
Change your passwords: If you've sent someone your login credentials, this is your number one priority. Change the passwords for any accounts you suspect might be compromised, starting with your email account! If financial information was shared, get in touch with your bank immediately and follow their advice.
Top tip: Use complex, unique passwords for each of your accounts.
Enable multi-factor authentication: Strengthen your defense by implementing multi-factor authentication. This added layer of security ensures that unauthorized users can't access your accounts, even if they have your password.
Scan for malware: Use a reliable antivirus program to scan your system for malware or viruses.
Report the phishing email: Alert your email provider about the phishing attempt. If the incident occurred at your workplace, notify your IT department immediately. Remember, if you’ve been targeted, others in your network might be at risk too.
Educate yourself and others: As Benjamin Franklin famously said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," rings particularly true in cybersecurity. Consider enhancing your knowledge through security awareness training.
Top tip: Share this blog with friends, family, and colleagues to help them avoid phishing scams.