Cybercriminals often impersonate trusted entities in phishing campaigns. While Microsoft tops the list of the most impersonated brand, phishing scams impersonating tax authorities are also common. In the United Kingdom, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) – the UK government department responsible for tax collection – it is often impersonated, and phishing attacks are on the rise. In the past 12 months, the number of phishing attacks impersonating HMRC increased by 87%.

The number of HMRC phishing attacks jumped from 572,029 in 2019/2020 to 1,069,522 in 2020/2021, according to official figures obtained by Lanop Outsourcing under a Freedom of information request.

Phishing can take many forms, but email scams are the most common. The number of HMRC phishing attacks conducted via email increased by 109% to 630,193 scams in 2020/2021. The most common lures used in these phishing campaigns were fake notifications about tax rebates and refunds, which were up 90% year-over-year. There were also major increases in text-based phishing (smishing) scams, which rose 52% year-over-year, and voice phishing (vishing) scams which increased by 66%.

There was an even bigger increase in phishing scams impersonating the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). In 2019/2020, HMRC received 5,549 reports of phishing scams impersonating the DVLA, but in 2020/2021 there was a whopping 661% increase with 42,233 reports.

Phishing scams impersonating HMRC and the DVLA target individuals, but they are dangerous for businesses too. The aim of these scams is to obtain sensitive data such as passwords, which could then be used in attacks on businesses. Phishing scams are also conducted to distribute malware. If malware is downloaded onto the business network, the attackers can use the access provided by the malware to move laterally and compromise an entire network.

Protecting against phishing scams requires a defense in depth approach. End user training is important as it is employees who are targeted. Employees need to be taught how to identify phishing scams and told what to do if a suspicious email is received. This is even more important at a time when employees are working from home as IT departments often lack visibility into the devices of remote workers.

Even with training, employees make mistakes. One study conducted on home workers revealed many have taken security shortcuts when working from home which has put their organization at risk. It is therefore important to implement technical defenses to ensure phishing emails do not reach inboxes.

An advanced spam filtering solution is a must. A spam filter is the most important technical measure to implement to block phishing attacks. While spam filters are good at blocking phishing emails from known malicious IP addresses, advanced spam filters such as SpamTitan have superior detection rates and can identify never-before-seen phishing scams. SpamTitan uses predictive technologies and AI to identify zero-day attacks involving IP addresses that have yet to be identified as malicious. Sandboxing provides protection from malware that has yet to have its signature added to antivirus engines, while DMARC is used to block email impersonation attacks such as those impersonating HMRC.

In phishing attacks, a lure is sent via email but the harvesting of credentials takes place on an attacker-controlled website. Links in emails to known malicious sites will be blocked, but protection can be significantly improved by using a web filter. A web filter will also block attempts to visit malicious sites via smishing messages and through web browsing as well and will block downloads of files associated with malware.

If you want to protect your business from phishing attacks, malware and ransomware and avoid costly data breaches, give the TitanHQ a team a call and find out more about improving your security posture by blocking more email- and web-based threats.