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Man-in-the-email vs. man-in-the-middle attack: What's the difference?

Learn the difference between man-in-the-middle and man-in-the-email attacks, and get tips on how to prevent becoming a victim.

What is a "man-in-the-email" attack? Is it different from a man-in-the-middle attack? Are there security tools...

and/or policies that can protect users from falling victim to such scams?

People and organizations are vulnerable to certain attacks regardless if the attack is via a webpage, phone call, email, text message or other type of communication.

High-profile vulnerabilities and advanced persistent threats get the most attention in the media, but low-tech attacks can be more difficult to stop or prevent because they attack the human.

A "man-in-the-email" attack is like the classic man-in-the-middle attack; a human attacker is in the middle of email communication, convincing other parties in the communication that they are communicating with each other. Since the middleman controls the communications, he or she could, for example, tell one party to transfer money to another party, but change the account number to direct the money to a fraudulent account the middleman controls.

There are long-term technical changes around knowing whom you are communicating with and being able to track the original source. Stopping these particular attacks might be possible with these long-term changes, but as the Internet Crime Complaint Center reported in its recent scam alert, attackers are changing their tactics.

Using only security tools and policies will not reduce the enterprise risk from man-in-the-email attacks. Since employees are being socially engineered into performing an action, security awareness is the most effective defense.

Training should include an out-of-band validation of any financial transactions through a known-good communication method, such as a PIN sent to an authorized mobile phone. Training could also include ways to detect fraudulent communications that can't be validated, such as spelling errors in names, email addresses, changes in phone numbers, among others.

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This was last published in March 2015

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