Malware, Phishing

Report: Genuine HR emails trigger suspicions after accidentally using common phishing tricks

It's one thing for employees to receive a phishing email that is purposefully crafted or spoofed to look like a genuine online communication. But when happens when people receive an actual, legitimate email that accidentally looks like a phishing scam?

According to a report from TechCrunch, this exact scenario took place last week when cloud-based HR solutions provider TriNet sent out a phishy-looking email to remote employees working for one of its corporate clients – a Los Angeles-based health startup.

Featuring the subject head: "Action Required - Unviewed Labor Law Notices," the email was suspicious enough to prompt one employee to forward the email to TechCrunch. The news outlet then showed the email to a security researcher and a social engineer and hacker. Multiple irregularities were observed, including:

  • The TriNet logo in the email was hosted on the image-hosting site Imgur instead of the company's own website – a trick spammers use to avoid detection.
  • The email contained a link to a web page with an entirely different domain than TriNet's home page, and with minimal content or imagery to suggest that the page was even affiliated with TriNet. This made it seem as if users were being rerouted in a DNS hijack attack.
  • A subdomain used in the email had been set only weeks earlier, suggesting that a malicious actor may have recently registered the URL in order to launch a new campaign.
  • TriNet reportedly does not enforce the DMARC policy on its domain name, which would make it easy for hackers to spoof the company's emails and create something that looked similar to the email in question.

TriNet spokesperson Renee Brotherton confirmed to TechCrunch that the emails were genuine and that they linked to a third-party site belonging to labor law poster solutions provider Poster Elite. "The Imgur image you reference is an image of the TriNet logo that Poster Elite mistakenly pointed to and it has since been removed," Brotherton said.

Social engineer Rachel Tobac, founder of SocialProof Security, told TechCrunch that "When companies communicate with customers in ways that are similar to the way scammers communicate, it can weaken their customer's ability over time to spot and shut down security threats in future communications."

Bradley Barth

As director of multimedia content strategy at CyberRisk Alliance, Bradley Barth develops content for online conferences, webcasts, podcasts video/multimedia projects — often serving as moderator or host. For nearly six years, he wrote and reported for SC Media as deputy editor and, before that, senior reporter. He was previously a program executive with the tech-focused PR firm Voxus. Past journalistic experience includes stints as business editor at Executive Technology, a staff writer at New York Sportscene and a freelance journalist covering travel and entertainment. In his spare time, Bradley also writes screenplays.

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