Email Fraud: How to Recognize and Avoid It

    Emails have evolved to become the prime form of communication for most companies worldwide. Countless online stores and other organizations carry on daily operations via email. And this opens the doors for email fraud. 

    That’s why learning how to deal with email fraud is crucial—now more than ever. Malicious actors understand the importance of emails and can easily slide their way into your inbox if you’re not careful.

    Below we discuss the importance of email fraud, how it can affect your business, and how to prevent it.

    What is Fraud?

    Fraud prevention starts with understanding what fraud is. The academic definition describes it as an intentionally deceptive action designed to provide a perpetrator with a benefit while denying something to a victim. In other words, any activity that relies upon false representation to achieve a gain, financial or otherwise, is defined as fraud.

    Fraud can be carried out by a single individual or a collective group. Common types of fraud include: 

    • Tax fraud
    • Debit or credit card fraud
    • Insurance fraud
    • Healthcare fraud
    • Securities fraud
    • Identity fraud
    • Online fraud 

    Email fraud is particularly harmful and one of the most common types of scams you can face online. Let’s take a closer look.

    What is Email Fraud?

    Email fraud or email scams are terms used to refer to any fraudulent activity carried out via email. There are many types of email fraud with objectives such as: 

    • Data theft
    • Financial theft
    • Credential theft
    • Wire fraud
    • Supply-chain attacks
    • Malware infection

    The most widespread forms of email fraud include various types of phishing attacks, which are a constant threat to individuals and organizations. These exploits often employ social engineering tactics to instill a sense of urgency or excitement to defraud victims. 

    A simple legitimate-looking email can trick users into clicking on a malicious link that downloads malware like ransomware or spyware onto their PC or device. Another popular technique uses fraudulent emails to convince victims that their accounts have been compromised or they’ve won a prize. 

    In either case, targets are scammed into giving up their credentials, which bad actors then use to commit further fraud or theft. Advance fee frauds are also popular, where scammers promise victims amazing job opportunities, cash rewards, or other incentives after paying a fee. These schemes can also be more personal, where victims essentially get “catfished” and asked to send money to perpetrators. 

    More complex schemes, such as spear phishing or business email compromise (BEC), are often aimed at high-ranking executives inside a company. These targeted attacks require effort on behalf of the malicious actors since they must do a lot of research to ensure successful execution. 

    But the payoffs are massive, with hackers often tricking victims into sending them money or divulging confidential company data. 

    In many cases, scammers exploit worldwide events like the pandemic or Queen Elizabeth II’s death. There was a surge of email fraud attacks during both incidents, with countless scams affecting unaware victims. 

    Nearly every email fraud effort has the same set of goals: to get financial gains or collect sensitive data to sell online. The outcome is always negative. Most of the time, you’ll only notice the breach after it happens. The consequences tend to be pretty nasty. On a personal level, you may have to deal with identity theft, monetary loss, etc. 

    If you run a business with a significant online presence, you can face worse challenges: disruption in your daily operations or supply chain, wire fraud, leaked patents, and more.

    Businesses and Email Fraud

    Since email fraud is one of the most common types of scams out there, it makes sense to target businesses. Cybercriminals can gain larger payouts by trying their luck with large corporations. It’s why CEO fraud is so common these days and why all company personnel should be trained to understand phishing attacks and how to identify them.

    The following industries are some of the most commonly targeted by email fraud.

    Finance and Banking

    The financial industry has become increasingly digitized in recent years. These days, almost all financial transactions are conducted online. Bad actors often exploit this fact with fraudulent emails purporting to come from a victim’s bank. Most of their efforts are on the low end, but BEC attacks are carefully crafted to target people with the power to move money within a company.

    Healthcare

    Healthcare scams have been commonplace since the dawn of the internet. In the early days, malware-loaded banners were all over the place, offering miracle pills or medication without prescriptions. Nowadays, the scams are more elaborate. Many come in the form of email fraud, usually targeted at organizations to deploy ransomware, at unsuspecting victims to harvest their data, or to commit financial theft via a BEC or phishing attack.

    Education

    Everything’s open game for cyber scammers: fraudulent emails offering fake scholarships, financial aid, or employment, phishing emails about issues with grades, etc. The education industry remains a prime target for email fraud. Common schemes include bulk phishing campaigns aiming to steal user data and more specialized scams targeting decision makers for financial gain.

    Government

    Bad actors aren’t afraid of impersonating the authorities for financial, political, or data gains. They use fraudulent emails to trick government employees into paying fake invoices, granting access to secure systems, or divulging confidential information. On the flip side, scammers also impersonate government officials to trick the public.

    This isn’t something new. State lottery emails are a common scam whenever there’s a large pot to give in any state. You can also get emails from IRS impersonators and other government agencies trying to extract information or money from you.

    How to Recognize Email Fraud

    Email fraud prevention begins by recognizing fake emails. You’ll notice certain features on a scam email that could quickly go over your head if you’re not paying attention. Here’s a list of the notable traits:

    • The sender’s email domain is different from the genuine organization(no company ever uses public ESPs like “gmail.com”; they use corporate email domains).
    • The email addresses you by a generic namesake such as “dear customer.”
    • The email requests you to perform an action out of the ordinary.
    • The email induces a sense of urgency, asking you to take action to solve an issue as soon as possible.
    • The email provides a link to directly solve the problem instead of asking you to visit their website.
    • The grammar in the email is incorrect and sounds off.
    • The email arrives at an untimely hour; notice that most bulletins and business emails are scheduled for specific hours.
    • The message in the email contains an image or another suspicious attachment.

    How to Avoid Email Fraud

    Avoiding email fraud is like trying to dodge rain: it’s not easy unless you’re prepared. The best way to avoid email scams is with a solid prevention strategy. Your team should be appropriately trained. They need to learn what email fraud is, how to prevent it, and how to recognize it. Here are some of the best ways to prevent fraud:

    Avoid Offering Sensitive Information

    Most email scams are designed to make people release sensitive information such as their full name, bank details, social security number, login credentials, and more. No company asks for this type of data, especially if they have requested this information in a form before joining their platform. No matter how legitimate the request looks, it’s best to double-check such requests with your supervisor or the service provider to be on the safe side.

    Update Your Devices

    Your computer and smartphone frequently update their software to protect you from scams. Even if you fall for a fraudulent email, the built-in security of your devices can tell you something is off. Always remember to accept software updates for your operative systems and apps.

    Keep Your Data Backups Updated

    Ransomware and other forms of malware can infect your systems and lock you out of your data. Even with solid anti-BEC strategies in place and thorough revision of your emails, you can be affected by email scams. Keeping updated backups of all your sensitive data is the best way to ensure these events can’t affect your operability.  

    Use Multi-Factor Authentication

    Even after taking proper email fraud prevention steps, your data can be leaked by a third party. Such events have happened, with large leaks from companies like Sony and Gizmodo. Keep your accounts safe by implementing MFA on everything to avoid any risks. Social media, email, and bank apps have an option for multi-factor authentication, which can keep you safe from scams.

    How DMARC Helps You Prevent Email Fraud

    As a business owner, you can prevent CEO fraud and other scams by implementing DMARC for your email infrastructure. Without DMARC, spammers and other bad actors can spoof your domain to send fake emails impersonating your organization. 

    DMARC works alongside SPF and DKIM to tell receiving email servers what todo with messages claiming to come from your organization. The receiver will verify every email against your DMARC policy, and all ESPs will take action based on your authentication protocols. As such, you can effectively stop bad actors from exploiting your domain to scam unsuspecting victims.

    Final Thoughts

    Fraudulent emails aren’t going away anytime soon, but you have immense power to prevent data breaches. The best way to learn how to avoid email fraud is by being prepared and keeping one step ahead of scammers and phishers. Always pay attention to small details. Take notice of the composition of all received messages, and ensure the sender uses the same address they always have when contacting you.

    There’s a lot to check on the body of all received messages. Email fraud isn’t always subtle, so it can be easy to catch. Be wary of any email rushing you to take quick action regarding data or money transfers. If you work in a managerial position, be aware of business email compromise and train your employees on cybersecurity awareness. Remember to enhance your operation’s communications by implementing email authentication standards like DMARC.