In the United States, phishing attacks on schools and higher education institutions have soared in recent months, highlighting the need for improvements to be made to staff education programs and cybersecurity defenses.

Phishing refers to the practice of sending emails in an attempt to get the recipients to reveal sensitive information such as logins to email accounts, bank accounts, or other computer systems.  Typically, a link is included in the email which will direct the user to a website where information must be entered. The sites, as well as the emails, contain information to make the request look genuine.

Phishing is nothing new. It has been around since the 1980’s, but the extent to which sensitive information is stored electronically and the number of transactions that are now conducted online has made attacks much more profitable for cybercriminals. Consequently, attacks have increased. The quality of phishing emails has also improved immeasurably. Phishing emails are now becoming much harder to identify, especially by non-technical members of staff.

No organization is immune to attack, but attackers are no longer concentrating on financial institutions and healthcare organizations. The education sector is now being extensively targeted. Phishing attacks on schools are being conducted far more frequently, and all too often those attacks are succeeding.

Such is the scale of the problem that the IRS recently issued a warning following a massive rise in phishing attacks on schools. Campaigns were being conducted by attackers looking for W-2 Form data of school employees. That information was then used to submit fraudulent tax returns in school employees’ names.

Recent Phishing Attacks on Schools, Colleges, and Universities

Westminster College is one of the latest educational institutions to report that an employee has fallen for the W-2 Form phishing scam, although it numbers in dozens of schools, colleges and universities that have been attacked this year.

Phishing emails are not only concerned with obtaining tax information. Recently, a phishing attack on Denver Public Schools gave the attackers the information they needed to make a fraudulent bank transfer. More than $40,000 intended to pay staff wages was transferred to the criminal’s account.

This week, news emerged of a listing on a darknet noticeboard from a hacker who had gained access to school email accounts, teacher’s gradebooks, and the personal information of thousands of students. That individual was looking for advice on what to do with the data and access in order to make money.

Washington University School of Medicine was targeted in a phishing attack that saw the attackers gain access to patient health information. More than 80,000 patients potentially had their health information stolen as a result of that attack.

Last week, news emerged of an attempted phishing attack on Minnesota schools, with 335 state school districts and around 170 charter schools potentially attacked. In that case, the phishing attack was identified before any information was released. The attack involved an email that appeared to have been sent from the Education Commissioner. The attackers were trying to gain access to financial information.

How to Improve Defenses Against Phishing Attacks

Fortunately, there are a number of technological controls that can be implemented cheaply to reduce the risk of phishing attacks on schools being successful.

An advanced spam filtering solution with a powerful anti-phishing component is now essential. A spam filter looks for the common spam and phishing signatures and ensures suspect messages are quarantined and not delivered to end users.

It must be assumed that occasionally, even with a spam filter, phishing emails may occasionally be delivered. To prevent employees from visiting phishing websites and revealing their information, a web filtering solution can be used. Web filters can be configured to block end users from visiting websites that are known to be used for phishing. As an additional benefit, web filters can stop individuals from accessing websites known to contain malware or host illegal or undesirable material – pornography for instance.

Those solutions should be accompanied by training for all staff members on the risk from phishing and the common identifiers that can help staff spot a phishing email. Schools should also implement policies for reporting threats to the organization’s IT department. Fast reporting can limit the harm caused and prevent other staff members from responding.

IT departments should also have policies in place to ensure thwarted attacks are reported to law enforcement. Warnings should also be sent to other school districts following an attack to allow them to take action to protect themselves against similar attacks.

Any school or higher educational institution that fails to implement appropriate defenses against phishing attacks will be at a high risk of a phishing attack being successful. Not only do phishing attacks place employees at risk of fraud, they can prove incredibly costly for schools to mitigate. With budgets already tight, most schools can simply not afford to cover those costs.

If you would like further information on the range of cybersecurity protections that can be put in place to prevent phishing attacks on schools and other educational institutions, call TitanHQ today for an informal chat.