As organizations find new ways to combat cybersecurity risks and spread cybersecurity awareness, attackers find innovative ways to mask their identity and trick vulnerable users and employees from falling into their trap.
Of all the cyberattacks, phishing is one of the most common and the top reasons for data breaches, ransomware, and stolen credentials. In fact, phishing and social engineering attacks are responsible for 50% of all data breaches worldwide.
Thus, for big or small to medium-sized businesses, phishing is one of the biggest threats, which mostly occurs due to human negligence and lack of awareness—jeopardizing your business’s operations, reputation, and revenue.
While there are multiple phishing attacks, including spear phishing, vishing, and whaling, clone phishing is one of the most sophisticated and effective cyberattacks.
In this article, we’ll learn more about this cyberattack, how it works, preventative measures, and how it differs from other types of phishing attacks.
Phishing is a cyberattack where the attacker sends out fraudulent emails, phone calls, website links, and text messages to trick the victims into entering their credentials, sharing sensitive information, downloading malware, or performing other actions that lead them to expose personal and organization’s confidential data to cybercriminals.
⚠️Thus, phishing is a form of social engineering attack that results in identity theft, data breaches, ransomware, credit card fraud, and other financial and data losses.
Clone phishing is a phishing attack that mainly involves sending fake emails. Let’s take a closer look at clone phishing and the security dangers associated with it.
What is Clone Phishing?
Clone phishing is a sophisticated cybersecurity attack where cybercriminals replicate or clone a previously sent legitimate email and send the replicated one to the victim.
Cybercriminals design cloned emails much like the original ones, consisting of legitimate details and names, making it very difficult to identify or spot them.
However, while the email content or body might appear similar, hackers replace the links and original attachments with malicious ones, allowing them to access sensitive business information or trigger malware download to the victim’s computer device.
Thus, clone phishing involves cyberattackers tricking users by sending legitimate-looking emails, like is done in spear phishing. These emails contain modified links and attachments—making the email look trustworthy and reliable.
How does Clone Phishing Work?
Clone phishing is a much more sophisticated version of phishing and takes phishing attacks to the next level because of how difficult they are to detect.
By getting every detail of the email right, including the text, logos, structure, and layout, cybercriminals use spoofing techniques to make the emails look legitimate and seem like they were sent from a trusted entity.
Here’s how a typical clone phishing attack works:
Attackers intercept a legitimate email or message sent to a user through trustworthy sources, like a bank, an employer, or and client support service, via techniques like DNS hijacking. While this isn’t necessary, if the attacker intercepts an email, it becomes even more difficult to spot and identify cloned emails.
Once intercepted, the attacker creates an exact replica of the email message, impersonating every detail of the email, including the sender’s address. At times, attackers also create fake websites and social media accounts to build trust among the users—even further making the email look more legitimate and familiar to the users.
Then, the attacker sends the cloned email message to the victim user, urging them to take specific actions, like changing their passwords and logging into their bank or other confidential accounts. The cloned email can also urge users to click on the malicious links included within the emails, leading them to fake and fraudulent websites.
The unsuspecting victim opens the email, thinking it’s legitimate, and performs the required action, like clicking on malicious links or opening an infected attachment—triggering malware installation or compromising sensitive information. If the victim clicks on malicious links, which redirect them to fake websites, they can enter their login credentials, enabling cybercriminals to steal confidential information.
After compromising a user’s sensitive information, cybercriminals can easily log into the user’s accounts with the stolen credentials—gaining access to sensitive data and other critical information.
Over 75% of target cyberattacks start through email, costing organizations millions and billions of dollars.
Here are a few devastating impacts of clone phishing and why they can be a cybersecurity threat to organizations.
Data loss: A successful clone phishing attack allows hackers to access confidential business information or sensitive user credentials, like passwords, credit card details, and bank account information—leading to serious crimes like identity theft, leaked confidential information, and fraud.
Financial loss: Due to threats like fraud and identity theft, businesses face major financial losses from stolen funds and fraudulent transactions. Organizations might also be required to pay for additional legal fees and fraudulent transactions related to curbing or resolving cyberattack issues like ransomware.
Reputational damage: Organizations suffer major reputational damage upon a successful clone phishing attack by exposing their weaknesses and increasing distrust among customers.
Thus, clone phishing attacks not only impact organizations legally and financially but tarnish their online reputation and brand image, making it difficult to build trust and loyalty among customers again.
Signs to Detect Clone Phishing
Considering the effectiveness and major impact of clone phishing attacks on organizations, preventing them before they cause significant harm is crucial.
Here are a few common signs that can help you identify the occurrences of clone phishing in your personal or professional email inbox.
#1. A sense of urgency in the email
The primary motive behind a clone phishing attack is to make the users perform actions that lead to the attack’s success. This is why almost all clone phishing attacks have a sense of urgency or threatening and insisting tone that asks the users to take immediate action before it’s too late.
If such email messages with threatening and urgent tonality seem unfamiliar or suspicious, you must refrain from clicking on the links or opening any attached files. Ensure to properly read through and review the email and verify if it’s from a legitimate source.
#2. Silly grammatical errors
Grammatical and spelling errors are one of the most obvious and common signs of clone phishing attacks. If the email body consists of multiple grammatical errors and the tone seems off, you must be careful about responding or taking action.
Usually, legitimate and professional business emails don’t have grammatical or spelling issues, as businesses care about their online reputation and invest in content and grammar-related tools. On the other hand, hackers often don’t have access to these tools and, many times not proficient in English—a huge sign of a cloned email.
#3. Long and unfamiliar email addresses
While most attackers send cloned emails using email addresses close to the original addresses, sometimes they use long email addresses consisting of random numbers and letters—especially when they can’t access or identify the original sender address.
Thus, looking at the email sender’s addresses is crucial. Long, unfamiliar, and random email addresses are a sign of spam, and you need to be careful with communicating with such emails.
#4. Different domain extensions
Being aware and careful about the domain extensions used after the brand name mentioned in the email is critical to identify signs of scam and clone phishing attacks.
If the original brand has a .com domain extension, and you receive an email from the same brand name but with a different domain extension, like .org, .io, .co, etc., it’s most likely a scam.
#5. Request for personal details and information
An email with an urgency to log in or verify your personal information will most likely be a scam. A trusted brand requesting personal information to avoid security threats won’t induce a sense of threat or urgency. Still, it will give you critical details with a timeline for when you should take the necessary action.
Moreover, a trusted brand would redirect you to a secure domain to log in to your account with the HTTPS prefix in the URL. If these elements aren’t present on the website, it’s a sign of a scam or cyberattack.
#6. Ineffective password managers
If you normally sign in to your brand account with a password manager and it populates or auto-fills your credentials, it’s a trusted website.
On the contrary, if you click on a malicious link within a cloned email, it’ll direct you to a familiar-looking but malicious and scammy website, where your password manager is incapable of auto-filling the login information.
#7. Pixelated images
While cloned emails consist of images similar to the original email images, including logos, signatures, and headers, often, they are distorted or pixelated, as attackers don’t always have the tools to enhance or retain the original image quality.
#8. Generic or unfamiliar greetings
Trusted emails sent by your organization’s colleagues, employees, or brand often greet or start the email with your name.
At times, attackers might not always have access to this information and hence start the email with generic greetings, like Respected/Dear Sir/Madam. If this seems off or unfamiliar, it’s a sign of a cloned email, especially if the email body seems familiar, consisting of business details, but the greetings seem off.
Examples of Clone Phishing
Cybercriminals use several clone phishing templates, mimicking a trusted brand’s tone and style to convince users of their legitimacy.
Here are some of the common clone phishing examples and templates scammers use to trick users:
Fake virus scam: Attackers send fake virus alert emails through trusted brand names—inducing fear amongst the recipients about their entire device being at risk and the necessity to download an anti-malware or anti-virus to fix this risk.
Customer support scam: Here, attackers often exploit the user’s social media accounts by sending them cloned emails to log in to their accounts and verify user activity due to their accounts being in danger—making recipients quickly take action to avoid any damage.
Refund scam: In this scam, scammers often target registered users on famous digital stores and marketplaces, sending them cloned emails about eligibility for a free gift or order refund—asking them to share their banking information to claim the reward.
Clone Phishing Real-life Examples
Clone phishing is a prevalent cybersecurity threat, and here are real-life instances of highlighted clone phishing attacks:
Recently, a hacker copied details from the previous email, pretending to be Giles Garcia, a company CEO, and proceeded to continue the email thread based on the previously sent original email, as if they were the real CEO.
In January 2022, attackers imitated and pretended to be the US Department of Labor (DoL) and impersonated their email addresses—by buying look-a-alike domains and spoofing the existing DoL domains. They sent professionally written and branded emails to the recipients with links directing them to phishing sites to steal their Microsoft Office 365 credentials.
Other Types of Phishing Attacks
People often get confused with the different phishing attack types and their distinctions from one another.
Here are other types of phishing attacks and how they differ from clone phishing:
Spear phishing: In this attack, attackers specifically target and pretend to be high-privilege users, like HR executives, senior employees, and network administrators, to send fake emails, as they have access to extensive confidential data. Spear phishing involves more advanced research, preparation, and customization than other attacks.
Whaling: Similar to spear phishing, whaling attacks also target high-profile employees—to compromise sensitive network areas, confidential files, and other critical business components.
Angler phishing: Attackers use fake social media posts to make victims share their login credentials and install malware on their devices.
How to Prevent Clone Phishing Attacks?
While clone phishing attacks can get a bit challenging to detect, you can take preventative measures to prevent them from happening in the first place.
Here are a few effective steps to prevent clone phishing attacks:
#1. Verify the sender’s email address
As discussed earlier, attackers often use long or look-alike email addresses to send clone emails. To create subtle differences, they often add letters, symbols, and characters to the original email addresses.
Hence, verifying their legitimacy is crucial to avoid falling prey to clone phishing attacks.
#2. Avoid readily clicking on links
Cloned emails contain malicious links, triggering malware downloads to redirect you to malicious websites.
Thus, it’s crucial to avoid clicking on links in the email unless to verify its safety and legitimacy.
#3. Use spam filters
If you rely on email communication on a daily basis, using spam filters can be highly beneficial to analyzing the email’s content and detecting unwanted, malicious, and dangerous messages.
While spam filters don’t directly help spot cloned emails, they can help you avoid spam and significantly reduce the chances of cloned emails in your inbox.
#4. Use password managers
Password managers are great preventative measures that make detecting duplicate or replicated websites easier.
Unlike the usual scenario, if your password manager doesn’t automatically populate your login credentials, you’re most likely entering your login credentials into a fake malicious website.
#5. Use threat protection that helps scan attachments
Threat Protection solutions help ensure you don’t download malicious viruses or malware to your computer device. They scan the documents and files you download on your device, and if in case they detect malware, these solutions remove the malware before it can cause any damage to your local device.
Moreover, some threat protection solutions also prevent you from landing on fake or duplicate websites. For instance, even if you click on a fake website link, Threat Protection Solutions will automatically block your access to these malicious websites and prompt a relevant warning on your screen.
#6. Double-check URL addresses
Even if you accidentally click on malicious website links, double-check and verify the URL address and ensure it matches the original company domain.
Check for the exact website name, including or removing symbols and letters and domain extensions to ensure you don’t interact with malicious websites.
#7. Check for HTTPS
Besides double-checking the domain and extensions, checking the secure HTTPS protocol presence is crucial. The HTTPS protocol ensures a website’s safety and credibility—demonstrating that it can be trusted and you interact with a secure website connection.
The presence of HTTP or the lack of HTTPS protocol is a major sign of fake or cloned websites—as legitimate businesses care about their online security and business reputation.
#8. Get in touch with a trusted source for help
If the cloned email you receive seems like a serious problem and you’re receiving such emails repeatedly, you must contact a trusted security official to address this issue on priority.
Additionally, if you receive scammy or suspicious emails from reputed and trusted brands, you can also get in touch with their support team to verify the email and its legitimacy.
Phishing is a major cybersecurity threat to businesses, and clone phishing is an evolved and sophisticated version of phishing that uses advanced techniques to make victims fall prey and exploit sensitive information.
Hence, staying on top of these cybersecurity attacks, keeping up with the latest cybersecurity trends, and taking measures to detect and prevent clone phishing is crucial to avoid financial, legal, and reputation business damage.
We hope this article helps you secure your email and confidential personal and business information by keeping your network safe from clone phishing risks.
Tejal is an experienced B2B SaaS content writer for eCommerce and marketing, specializing in web hosting, AI & ML, cloud and cybersecurity, SEO, and digital marketing. She holds a B.E degree in Electronics & Telecommunications… read more
Joy R Bhamre
Joy R Bhamre is a multifaceted professional, holding the title of Editor at Geekflare. She is a Google-certified Digital Marketing Specialist, a seasoned Editor and writer, and a Cambridge-certified English Language Trainer, boasting… read more
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