Emails have long been one of the most profitable avenues of attack for hackers. Whether they’re looking to inject malware or steal valuable data such as login credentials or credit card details, tricking people into opening up malicious emails remains a reliable way for hackers to get what they want.

However, as businesses recognise this and defences get better, criminals have to develop ever-more sophisticated ways to get around the protections. This means traditional attack methods such as phishing, where scammers send out large volumes of email hoping for a response, are being refined and personalised in order to stand a chance at success.

Many types of attack now fall into the category of ‘spear phishing’. As the name suggests, this is like regular phishing, only more targeted. Instead of throwing out a wide net and hoping someone responds, they’re tailoring their emails to a specific individual.

Because these emails seem personal and relevant to the recipient, without any of the vagueness of traditional phishing emails that people know to look out for, every employee needs to be aware of their risks and be on the lookout for suspicious communications at all times.

While there are a wide range of email attacks firms may face, there are a few common attack patterns that everyone should know about. Here are three you need to familiarise yourself with.

1. Brand impersonation

One of the most common types of spear-phishing attack are emails that purport to be from brands that an individual already does business with. For example, they may appear to be from a retailer asking you to rearrange a delivery, or from a financial services firm asking you to update crucial details.

Increasingly, they can also appear to come from software providers like Microsoft. As more businesses depend on cloud applications from such firms, employees may be more susceptible to being fooled by these.

2. Executive impersonation

A related, but distinct form of email attack is executive impersonation. In this case, instefad of posing as a brand, the scammer makes it appear as if the email is coming from a senior executive at the company who is asking for sensitive information.

These are typically aimed at junior employees who are more likely to respond quickly and without fully checking the legitimacy of the email, as they don’t want to upset senior personnel.

Both brand and executive impersonation emails can often have a couple of telltale signs to be aware of. They commonly come from domains that may look right at a casual glance, but may have a single incorrect letter, for example. In cases such as executive impersonations, hackers will often be relying on the employee being so focused on meeting the request of their boss they simply don’t notice these errors.

3. Malware

The above two types of attack are typically looking to extract information, either by getting the recipient to send it directly or having them enter login details on a fake site. But firms also need to be aware of attacks that seek to infiltrate the network with malware.

Whether by opening malware-laden attachments or directing the user to a site from which a ‘drive-by’ download can be performed, these threats can cause a wide range of issues. One particular danger to be aware of is ransomware, which is increasingly popular among hackers and can be very hard to deal with if it’s not stopped quickly.

How to keep your business email safe

To avoid falling victim to these threats, it’s vital you have a layered email security system. This should cover employee education to ensure they’re able to spot threats, as well as technical solutions to block malicious emails before they have a chance to do dama