What is an Impersonation Attack? | EasyDMARC

What is an Impersonation Attack?

6 Min Read

A user impersonation attack is a type of fraud where an attacker poses as a trusted person to steal money or sensitive information from a company. Usually, these types of attacks come from individuals targeting high-level executives. The goal of these bad actors is to transfer money into a fraudulent account, share sensitive data, or reveal login information to hack a company’s network.

So, what’s an impersonation attack? Let’s dive in and learn more.

How Does an Impersonation Attack Work?

Impersonation attacks don’t involve malware and often happen through email. Hackers use social engineering to gather information about a targeted employee. In addition, they conduct extensive research on their target through social media and other sources. This information helps give the attacker credibility and makes their message seem authentic. 

Usually, the targeted person is an employee who can transfer funds or has access to proprietary information. The attackers then use this data to create fake emails that appear to originate from high-level executives. They’re designed to trick the victim into transferring money or sensitive information.

What is an Impersonation Attack

It’s hard to detect this kind of attack because most of the time, users don’t pay close attention to detail, or they’re unaware of this type of threat. Unfortunately, this lack of awareness is one of the reasons why many security breaches happen. Here’s an email impersonation attack example and how similar it can look to the real thing:

It can be challenging to tell the difference between emails that are this similar, especially if you’re busy with many work tasks.

Modern phishing attacks like this are very targeted, making them harder to detect. Spear phishing attacks are usually well-designed and can deceive users into thinking they’re receiving a legitimate email. 

Unlike general phishing attempts, an impersonation attack doesn’t have spelling and grammar errors. Having grammatically correct emails makes them appear more authentic to the recipient. However, there are signs that can help you recognize this scam. 

An Urgent Tone

Assailants of these attacks try to compel victims to act immediately, without thinking. They do this by adding pressure through urgent language. This behavior increases their chances of succeeding. 

Since user impersonation attacks usually look like they’re coming from company executives, the messages will sometimes threaten negative consequences if they don’t complete the task. Remember, attackers don’t want you to analyze what you’re doing.

Unusual Requests

Always be on the lookout for emails that ask for sensitive information. You must verify their authenticity before sharing private documents or transferring money. 

An impersonation attack usually involves sending funds to unusual accounts or requesting recipients to provide personal information such as bank account numbers. Multiple channels should corroborate a request to transfer money or share sensitive information.

Emphasis On Confidentiality

When they’re trying to get sensitive information, attackers will usually emphasize terms such as “confidential,” “private,” or “secret.” They use these terms in an attempt to prevent you from telling others about the email. Since privacy is an essential element, this tactic usually works. 

Scammers are good at using an email address similar to the correct one to appear legitimate. Always look at the actual address URL by hovering over it, or if you’re using a mobile device, by pressing and holding. Pay close attention to ensure that everything has correct spelling before you reply. 

The reply-to address may differ from the address the email was sent from, so check this as well. In addition, sometimes, a link in an email is fake. Make sure the links within the email match the text from the hyperlinks in the email copy. 

These tips won’t work against someone who has hacked someone else’s email, so always look for other signs that the person is being impersonated.

How to Prevent an Impersonation Attack?

Organizations should implement a multi-layered approach to secure emails and prevent cybercrime and phishing attacks. Here are some techniques organizations can use to prevent an impersonation attack:

Email Security Solutions

An impersonation attack can get past regular email spam filters and expose sensitive information without requiring special permissions. Many companies have developed software to help protect against these sophisticated attacks. 

For example, machine learning-based threat detection identifies emails that contain suspicious content and flags them for potential security threats.

Cybersecurity Training

Your employees are another defense mechanism against impersonation attacks, but they can be the opposite if they aren’t trained correctly in spotting the correct information. By equipping employees with the necessary knowledge to detect these scams, you can promote a security culture and stay ahead of attackers.

It’s also essential to have regular training because scammers constantly update their techniques to deceive their targets.

A Company Domain

Using a specific email domain instead of a generic one for your company enhances protection against impersonation attacks. Generic email domains like Yahoo and Gmail are easier to impersonate, making it simpler for scammers to get into your inbox and extract sensitive information.

Standard Operating Procedures

A set of comprehensive email procedures can help minimize the likelihood of an employee accidentally falling victim to an impersonation attack. For instance, you can mandate that all email requests be verified internally before transferring funds or sending sensitive data.

What To Do About An Impersonation Attack

When employees suspect they were the target of an email impersonation scam, they should immediately inform their supervisor, the IT department, and the individual who the attacker impersonated. In addition, various government agencies can help prevent cybercrime and help with the aftermath of these attacks.

The Takeaway

Email impersonation attacks are a common phishing scam used to gain funds or obtain sensitive information illegally. These types of attacks will continue to be a method cybercriminals use, so it’s essential to recognize them whether through an unusual request, urgent tone, incorrect email address, or emphasis on secrecy. 

Most importantly, you need to take steps to protect against such threats. So, pay attention to details, get some cybersecurity training, use a company domain, and create email procedures. Doing these things will help keep you, your company, your money, and your private information safe from bad actors.

Content Team Lead | EasyDMARC
Hasmik talks about DMARC, email security, and cyberawareness. She finds joy in turning tough technical concepts into approachable and fun articles in plain language.


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