Last updated at Sun, 10 Dec 2023 00:01:33 GMT

The Internet is full of articles for how to tell if an email is phishing but there seems to be a lack of concise checklists how to prepare an organization against phishing attacks, so here you go.

Because phishing attacks humans and systems alike, the defense should also cover both aspects. None of the following steps is bullet proof, so layering your defenses is important – and having an incident response plan in case someone does get through.

Here are my recommendations on how to defend against phishing attacks:

1. Filter emails for phishing threats

It's important that you filter your emails for malicious URLs and attachments to prevent phishing emails making it to your users in the first place. Sandboxing can detect a lot of the malware in emails, but make sure that you have a follow up plan in place if you're deploying this technology in detection rather than blocking mode – otherwise the malware is still live on your systems. Use security analytics to filter out malicious URLs. Rapid7 uses threat feeds to detect known malicious URLs and security analytics to alert on unknown ones. It also integrates with sandboxing solutions, such as FireEye NX Series and PaloAlto WildFire, to enable quick and easy incident investigation of malware alerts.

2. Update client-side operating systems, software, and plug-ins

Some phishing emails include URLs to exploit vulnerabilities in the browsers and its plug-ins, such as Flash and Java; others send file attachments that try to exploit applications like Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft Office. That's why it's important to patch vulnerabilities on your endpoints as well. Many organizations already have a vulnerability management program in place but only scan servers. Make sure you extend coverage to your endpoints and patch operating systems, software, and plug-ins. This not only protects you from phishing emails but also drive-by attacks. Rapid7 Nexpose can help you manage vulnerabilities on your endpoints, and much more.

3. Harden Your Clients

Lock down your clients as much as possible. This includes things like not making your users local administrators and deploying mitigation tools like Microsoft EMET (check out this Whiteboard Wednesday on EMET on how to deploy this free tool). Rapid7 Nexpose Ultimate includes Controls Effectiveness Testing, which helps you scan your clients and guides you through the steps to harden them against phishing and other attacks.

4. Block Internet-bound SMB and Kerberos traffic

One of our penetration testing team's favorites is to use an SMB authentication attack. In this scenario, the attacker sets up an SMB service on the Internet and sends a phishing email with a URL or Word document that references an image through file:// rather than http://. This tricks the computer to authenticate with the domain credentials to the SMB service, providing the attacker with a user name and password hash. The hash can then be cracked or used in pass the hash attacks. To defend against SMB and Kerberos attacks, you should block TCP ports 88, 135, 139, 445 and UDP ports 88, 137, 138 for non-RFC 1918 IP addresses, both on the perimeter and the host-based firewalls. You'll want to have a process in place to detect compromised credentials, for example Rapid7 UserInsight, which leads us to the next item on our checklist.

5. Detect malware on endpoints

Many phishing attacks involve malware that steal your data or passwords. You should have technology in place to detect malware on the endpoint. Regular anti-virus is great for catching commodity malware, which is likely the bulk of what you will see used against you. There are also many new endpoint detection vendors out there that have great alternative technologies. Rapid7 UserInsight uses its agentless endpoint monitor to collect process hashes from all machines on your network to highlight known malicious processes based on the output of 57 anti-virus scanners; it also looks for rare/unique unsigned processes that may indicate malware.

6. Detect compromised credentials and lateral movement

Even with all of these protections in place, your users may still fall prey to credential harvesting attacks. A common phishing attack is leading users to a fake Outlook Web Access page and asking them to enter their domain credentials to log on, but there are many variations. Once the attackers have the passwords, they can impersonate users. Rapid7 UserInsight can detect compromised credentials, both on your network and in cloud services, such as Office 365, and It detects lateral movement to other users, assets, or to the cloud, so you'll be able to trace intruders even if they break out of the context of the originally compromised user.

7. Implement 2-factor authentication

Add 2-factor authentication (2FA) to any externally-facing system to stop attackers from using stolen passwords. While Rapid7 doesn't offer a solution in this space, check out our partners Okta and Duo Security. All systems protected with Okta Rapid7/Okto Integration Brief or Duo Security can be monitored with Rapid7 UserInsightto help detect any attempts to use compromised credentials.

8. Enable SPF and DKIM

There are two standards that help determine if an email actually came from the sender domain it claims to detect email spoofing. The first one is the Sender Policy Framework (SPF), which adds an list to your DNS records that includes all servers that are authorized to send mail on your behalf. The second standard is DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), which is a way for an email server to digitally sign all outgoing mail, proving that an email came from a specific domain and was not altered during transportation. Together, they raise the confidence in the authenticity of the sender and email content by the recipient. To help improve security hygiene, check that your systems have both SPF and DKIM enabled on your outgoing email. For incoming email, you should check if a the sender domain has SPF set up and the email came from an authorized server, and that DKIM signed emails have not been tampered with. While these protections are not bullet proof against targeted attacks that register look-alike domains, they can help filter out a lot of mass phishing.

9. Train your employees on security awareness

While even educated users won't catch everything, they are worth investing in. Train your users about how to detect phishing emails and send them simulated phishing campaigns to test their knowledge. Use the carrot, not the stick: Offer prizes for those that detect phishing emails to create a positive security-aware culture – and extend the bounty from simulated to real phishing emails. Whenever you see new phishing emails targeting your company, alert your employees about them using sample screenshots of the emails with phishy features highlighted. Encourage your users to use secure browsers – I put Google Chrome (64-bit version) on the top of my list for security and usability. Here at Rapid7, we offer Security Awareness Trainings; you can also send phishing simulations with Rapid7 Metasploit Pro that track click-throughs so you can report on user awareness.

10. Have an incident response plan

Even if you put all of these protections in place, some phishing emails will get through, especially if they are targeted against your organization and tailored to the individual. It's not whether these emails will get through but how well you are prepared to respond to intruders on the network. Rapid7 UserInsight enables you to detect compromised users and investigate intruders that entered the network through a phishing attack. This helps you shorten your time-to-detection and time-to-contain, reducing the impact of a phishing attack on your organization. In addition, Rapid7 offers incident response services and can help you develop an incident response program.

While these areas cover the most important counter-phishing measures, I'd love to hear if you've implemented anything else that you found to be effective - just post your experience in the comments section.