Recent headlines have thrown social engineering tactics back into the spotlight and with the election, it’s no wonder that the candidates are the primary targets of attacks. In recent months Robert Podesta, Colin Powell and the Democratic National Convention have had emails dumped to WikiLeaks by persons unknown. While many of these are attributed to a certain group, the goal here is not to look at the attribution but the method.

When looking at a suspicious email from any service, you should always check the sender and ask yourself, “Did I expect this message or do I know this person?” If the answer to that is no, then you should absolutely look closer. If the service is one you use, go directly to the service itself. Don’t use links provided in an email, because concealing malicious links is very easy. In fact, according to a study by RSA, URL shorteners like Bitly and tiny.url have been heavily used in recent months. In the case of Podesta, the Bitly address was embedded into the URL as a redirect. The following graphic was pulled from an Ars Technica article, and we have added some flags to look for that may indicate a phish.

Spear Phishing Attacks Breach Podesta, Powell, and the DNC

Figure 1: A few flags to look for in emails to help spot a fake.

Another thing that went wrong here was that though the IT staff were fooled by the spear, they issued advice (namely, to go to directly and change the password and enact 2FA) which was best practice; however, the staffers or Podesta himself simply clicked the link. If you go to an IT professional and ask their advice, it’s probably a best practice to follow that advice. Once again, don’t click links in emails; rather, navigate to the known good website directly and see if the information is true or to make any requested changes to your account.

In conclusion, any time you receive an email:

  1. Look carefully at the sender address
  2. Don’t click any links, rather navigate to the site directly
  3. If it’s at all possible, enable 2 Factor Authentication

Following some basic guidelines can dramatically reduce your attack surface and help keep you and your organization safe online.