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Phishing Job Candidates

A job candidate received a solicitous phishing email from what looked like a valid client domain but it turned out it was not the client. The call was not coming from inside the house ...

We recently came across a phishing campaign at a client that caught our attention because it was highly targeted to a company (our client) but the targets weren't the typical "internal employees". Rather the targets were outside people that had reason to interact with the company - in this case job candidates and even potential candidates. This introduces some interesting wrinkles into the usual approaches for defending against phishing and protecting organizational reputation, so we thought it would be worth highlighting some of the details of the campaign and what we did.

Phishing is where someone, typically some sort of organized cybercrime gang, sends a malicious email to a group of people hoping that someone will respond, click a link, open an attachment or something like that. The objective is typically to compromise credentials or the user's computer, or potentially to collect secret information (eg. account info) to perpetrate fraud. We have written previously about spearphishing.

What It Looked Like

In this case, the phishers did the following:

  • Identify a real job posting for the company (eg. Social Media Manager)
  • Register a look alike domain (domain.us)
  • Send emails to potential candidates for the job posting
    • From careers@domain.us
  • Engage with candidates that respond
    • Schedule an interview or discussion
  • Send an offer package including an employment agreement and direct deposit form

From the candidates perspective, the emails looked somewhat realistic.

Dumb Luck Detection

With most phishing campaigns, you see lots of evidence of them. Employees report that they got a weird email. Or maybe you even get the weird email yourself. At our more advanced customers, we have ways of sharing information about new campaigns we see - eg. sharing screenshots of examples in a #security channel.

With campaigns that target potential job candidates, the candidates don't have this avenue for discussing things with the company. Unless a candidate just smells something phishy and decides to tell you about it, how would you find out about it? You certainly can't train the planet to prevent people from falling for phishing related to your organization.

In this case, the only reason the campaign was detected at all was that one of the real candidates (again not an employee!) was also targeted by the phishing campaign and called the two different interview processes out to the recruiter from the actual company.

What Can We Do?

One of the keys to the success of this campaign (well, relative success, we're not aware of anyone actually falling for it yet - but people engaged with it) is that the domain looks credible. To prevent this, it can be helpful to register similar domains, like those with:

  • Similar top level domains (eg. .us, .co.uk, .io, .net, etc.)
  • Use a tool like DNSTwist to identify similar domain names and register (and/or watch) those

Once the domain was registered, a second thing we did was report abuse and ask the DNS provider to disable it. It is unclear how effective or quickly this will be done. (It has not been taken down yet)

Another thing we recommended, but which is very hard for companies to do (and this one didn't), is to publish a blog and social post with the detail of the campaign so that potential targets can find information to defuse the emails they are getting on your website.

It should be noted that there are any number of workflows where phishing like this could be done, not just job search. Vendors, partners, customer engagement, etc. There was a short period of time where we were concerned that there was leakage of candidate information through one of the many third party systems hosting the process. After further review, we don't think that was the case, but it still may be something an organization would want to do proactively to prevent these attacks from being more credible than they otherwise would be.

Finally, it is always a good idea to think through your operational processes and communicate about those early and often with people that are interacting with you. So specifically, you can:

  • In the job posting, talk about how the communication will work
    • Who it will be from
    • What you can expect in terms of attachments vs. online systems
  • In initial emails, reiterate what is normal interaction and what to do if the interaction model isn't normal

Conclusion

A critical step in this scenario was the recruiter listening to the candidate's input and believing them that something was not right. It turns out that being human and communicating has big benefits.

The follow ups are also important. IT looking at the detail to identify the phishing domains, reporting them, and capturing the detail so that the company knew what the patterns were was important. This allowed them to communicate with candidates and update the information in their posting and their more general communication strategy.

Of course, we can't stop an attack like this from happening, and we can't really be responsible for every misuse of our identity - but being proactive and trying to make it easier for candidates not to get fooled by phishers is worth the effort. If you are a company wondering what to do, you could start by adding this as a risk in your Risk Register.

To me, that is is what is scary about this scenario: there is no obvious way to stop it and there is no real limit to what or who could be targeted. So like with many things in security, we have to live in the grey.

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