The 5 Phases of a Data Breach | EasyDMARC

The 5 Phases of a Data Breach

6 Min Read
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A data breach is a security incident where an unauthorized third party accesses the data hubs of your company with malicious intent. It’s a costly event that can affect your productivity and your ability to generate income while straining your business relationships. 

This type of cyberattack doesn’t happen in a single strike. There are many data breach stages where it’s possible to detect what the attacker is doing. But you need to know the signs before you can prevent the breach. 

If you’ve landed here, you likely want to learn about all stages of a data breach. Cyber actors can pursue these events intentionally, and they go to great lengths to get what they want. 

A resourceful hacker always looks to exploit the vulnerabilities of your system. The more tech-savvy you are, the better your chances of preventing these attacks. As you’ll learn, well-educated personnel and a solid data leak prevention strategy can save you a lot of hassle.

In the following lines, we discuss the various data breach phases, the emotional stages of a data breach, and how they’re related to the importance of data loss prevention.

Target Research

First of all, data breach stages have to do with research. Hackers take their time to understand their target. They rarely act at random. They pick a company based on their public records, and they choose certain employees based on their public imprint online. 

Attackers gain a lot of insight into financial filings and budgets for the organization’s security. Everything is useful, even public court records.. 

As one of the top phases of a data breach, cyberattackers put a lot of effort into gathering information and organizing how they’ll use it. Public companies offer data about their business partners, and everything shared about them is valuable. 

There’s precise information providing entry points, such as names, job titles, email addresses, etc. Research can also focus on specific vulnerabilities, such as the backdoors offered by weak security software, lax passwords, etc.

Vulnerability Identification

When the hacker’s done collecting data, it’s time to scan your system, looking for vulnerabilities. As one of the stages of a data breach, this goes hand-in-hand with research. The main difference is that the attacker is probing your system to seek out any vulnerabilities. 

Hackers scan all utilities, system ports, devices and account for weaknesses they can exploit. Once they’ve gained complete oversight of the entry points, they can proceed with the attack.

Some of the best ways to prevent data loss are by using network monitoring software, vulnerability scanning, and penetration testing. These programs and processes can diagnose all weaknesses in your systems before any hacker gets a hold of them. These measures can alert your IT department to take action and prevent any attacks. Cyberactors can use remote access tools to alter your system and keep you unaware of their presence, so your company must stay cyberaware.


The exploitation phase is third among the five data breach stages. By now, the attackers know your system and have some understanding of your company and staff routines. They’ve also figured out which system vulnerabilities to exploit using the relevant open port. This is the moment hackers launch all tools at their disposal to access the data they wish to collect or to get control of your system. 

Out of all the previous data breach phases, this is when hackers take visible action for the first time. They can use malware links, spoof an email within the company, use fake login pages, or other means. Some attackers can collect data to sell it on the dark web. 

Others may look to partake in more sinister and direct attacks such as ransomware heists. You can fight data exploitation with vulnerability management tools to scan your system and train your staff with email security best practices.

Payload Delivery

The next stage of a data breach is the payload delivery. This is where cyber attackers show their hands. If their sole intent is to collect data, you won’t be feeling the pinch until reports of the data leak get to you. You’ll be at their whim until they decide what to do with your data. At this point, these bad actors have access to your systems, and there’s very little you can do to fix the issue.  

Some hackers have bad intentions from the get-go. They can plant malware on your servers, computers, or devices, even after getting what they need. They might hijack your systems or files and ask for a ransom in return for access. 

They may even take hold of an internal email account to scam your company for as long as they want (or until someone notices). This can be a very emotional stage of a data breach since you feel frustrated for not noticing earlier.

Data Extraction

Data extraction is the consummation of the attack and the last data breach phase. The hackers take everything they want from your data hubs. It can be information about your customers or business partners, financial records, or intellectual property. 

Once cybercriminals have your company data, they can exploit it in any way they please. They may choose to sell it on the dark web, use it for fraud or theft, or leak it to the public.

There’s very little you can do to stop the data extraction process, but there’s a lot you can do to prevent it from happening. Network monitoring software, frequent penetration testing, and vulnerability management tools can pick up abnormal activities and system weaknesses.  But these measures alone aren’t enough. 

You need a solid data breach prevention plan with reliable cyber defense mechanisms and other tools to keep your systems safe.

What’s Next?

If you’re a victim of a data breach, then you’re already familiar with the different phases.  Cybercriminals can execute each step without dropping a single hint before it’s too late. 

The worst part about a data breach is that victims usually notice until nothing can be done to stop it. So, the most pressing question becomes: What can you do?

Damage control. Start by finding out the extent of the data breach before informing all affected parties. Now’s the time to remain transparent. Take all the necessary steps to identify and repair your system’s vulnerabilities, and guide any victims with clear communication on what they should do.

As mentioned earlier, the best way to mitigate a data breach attack is with preventive measures. Develop an effective DLP strategy that covers all bases, from your email, browser, and web domain to your system, devices, and data storage. 

Implement regular cybersecurity staff training and stay updated with any cyber threats and security patches.  

Any investment you make to take preventive action against data breach attacks is money you won’t spend trying to re-establish your brand’s reputation after a cyberattack.

Various authors from EasyDMARC teams have contributed to our blog during company's lifetime. This author brings everyone together.


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