How multifactor authentication protects you from phishing attacks?

Multifactor authentication is the most effective shield against phishing, but even with MFA you’re not 100 percent safe, learn how to protect yourself and your company.

Almost everybody was a target of a phishing attempt at some point. The lucky ones can avoid that easily, but it’s not always that obvious. Phishing attacks are getting more complicated and elaborate by the day.

How phishing works

Phishing works in many ways, but they all have a common goal which is to trick the victim into giving up critical credentials, and data, or perform actions that can compromise the operations of a company or an organization.

Over the years, phishing evolved to take various forms, like Clone Phishing, voice phishing, MS phishing, or Credential Harvesting via Fake Login Pages. These are just different ways to try to impersonate an official entity and request in its name passwords, emails, or any form of credentials from the target. And then use them to access private networks, steal data, or do some other nefarious activity.

Some of these attempts are more elaborate and refined than others, but perhaps the most difficult to resist and hardest to detect are those known as Spear Phishing. In this case, Attackers gather information about their targets from various sources, such as social media, public databases, or previous data breaches. They then craft highly tailored and convincing emails or messages that appear to come from a trusted source, such as a colleague, business partner, or customer. The messages often include familiar details to deceive the target into revealing sensitive information or clicking on malicious links.

How companies should protect themselves against phishing

Phishing is a significant concern when it comes to cybersecurity. Attackers typically target employees through deceptive emails, attempting to trick them into clicking on malicious links or providing sensitive information. Once an employee falls for the phishing attempt, the attacker gains entry and establishes a presence within the organization’s systems. To counter this threat, employee training is crucial.

Various programs and vendors offer training specifically designed to educate employees about phishing and how to recognize and avoid it. These training initiatives aim to simulate phishing scenarios in a controlled environment, ensuring employees are well-prepared to identify and handle suspicious emails. Additionally, if an employee fails the simulated phishing test, they can receive additional training to reinforce their understanding of phishing threats. By implementing these proactive measures, organizations can significantly reduce the likelihood of a successful phishing incident.

How multifactor authentication protects against phishing

Multifactor authentication (MFA) is an effective security measure that helps protect against phishing attacks that typically involve tricking individuals into revealing sensitive information, such as usernames, passwords, or other personal details, by impersonating a trustworthy entity. MFA adds an extra layer of security to the authentication process, making it more difficult for attackers to gain unauthorized access even if they manage to acquire the user’s credentials through phishing.

MFA requires users to provide multiple pieces of evidence to prove their identity. Typically, this involves

  • something the user knows (such as a password),
  • something the user possesses (such as a mobile device or a security token),
  • or something inherent to the user (such as a fingerprint or facial recognition).

By combining two or more factors, MFA ensures that an attacker would need to compromise multiple elements to gain unauthorized access.

Moreover, With MFA enabled, even if a user falls victim to a phishing attempt and unknowingly provides their credentials to an attacker, it would be insufficient to gain access to the system. They would still require additional factors, such as a temporary code sent to the user’s mobile device or a biometric scan, which the attacker is unlikely to possess.

Time-Sensitive Verification

Many MFA methods employ time-based factors, such as one-time passwords (OTPs) or temporary codes. These codes are typically valid for a short duration, often just a few minutes. In a phishing scenario, even if an attacker manages to intercept the initial authentication request, the time-sensitive nature of the second factor significantly limits their ability to exploit it successfully.

Real-time notifications

Some MFA solutions include real-time notification and alert systems. If an authentication attempt is made, the legitimate user receives an immediate notification on their trusted device, informing them of the activity. This alert system helps users become aware of potential unauthorized access attempts, which can help identify phishing attacks and take appropriate action, such as changing passwords or reporting suspicious activity.

Adaptive Authentication

Advanced MFA systems employ adaptive authentication techniques that analyze various contextual factors, such as device information, IP address, geolocation, and user behavior patterns. These systems can detect anomalies and trigger additional authentication steps if suspicious activity is detected. For example, if a user typically logs in from a specific geographic location but suddenly attempts to authenticate from a different country, the system may prompt for further verification, preventing unauthorized access even if the phishing attack was successful in obtaining credentials.

Traditional multifactor authentication is not enough anymore

Recently, some SMS-based MFA systems were compromised. Attackers were able to intercept the 4-digit code sent as a text message to the user’s device and use it to access the system. To address this vulnerability, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, recommends a new level of MFA called “multifactor with challenge.”

This enhanced MFA method adds another layer of security by discreetly displaying a unique two-digit number on the user’s phone. Only the authorized user can see this number, and they need to correctly respond to the challenge by providing the corresponding code. This approach ensures that even if the authentication messages are intercepted, the attacker would still need the unique challenge number to gain access. It serves as an extra layer of difficulty to protect against interception-based attacks.
The NIST’s cybersecurity framework, which has become the national standard, promotes the adoption of this new level of MFA with challenge. The evolving nature of security threats necessitates continuous improvements in authentication practices to stay ahead of potential breaches.

By implementing multifactor authentication, individuals, and organizations significantly reduce the risk of successful phishing attacks. It adds another layer of protection by requiring multiple factors to be verified, making it much more difficult for attackers to gain unauthorized access, even if they manage to obtain a user’s credentials through phishing.