Phishing simulations help employees spot these cyberattacks as part of an organization’s overall cybersecurity awareness training.

Key Points

  • Phishing is one of the most pervasive and costly cybercrimes today.
  • Phishing simulations are used to embed alertness and test employees in their ability to detect and report phishing attempts, greatly improving an organization’s cyber awareness.
  • While phishing simulations are valuable tools, not all are created equal.

Phishing is one of the oldest forms of email attacks — and still one of the most pervasive cybercrimes today. Fraudsters send seemingly legitimate emails to lure individuals into providing sensitive data such as login credentials or account information. And when one person in an organization takes the bait, they open the door to cyber risk. In 2021, phishing accounted for more than one-third (36%) of all data breaches.[1]

Generative AI is already taking phishing attacks to the next level. It lowers the barrier for cybercriminals not well-versed in the native language of their targets, helping them to create very convincing phishing emails. Generative AI is also providing cybercriminals with scalability in creating more and more customized phishing emails via large language models.

The breaches caused by phishing attacks can be costly, sometimes resulting in millions of dollars in damages as well as blows to an organization’s productivity and reputation. As phishing continues to pose threats to enterprise security, companies are turning to phishing simulations as part of their security awareness training and efforts to thwart these attacks.

phishing simulation is a program that organizations use to train and test employees in their ability to detect and report a variety of evolving email threats with realistic de-weaponized replications of real-world attacks. These programs help a company’s leaders understand how well-prepared — or not — their employees are to handle phishing attempts, and provide them with an understanding of the effectiveness of their security awareness training.

While phishing simulations are valuable tools to use as part of security awareness training, not all are created equal. Successful phishing simulation requires an understanding of key features of an effective program, mistakes to avoid, and best practices for development and deployment.

Inside a Phishing Simulation

During a simulated phishing attack, a group of employees will receive an email that that mimics the contents of a real phishing attack. The test missive will lure them into taking an action, whether it’s to click a link, disclose login credentials, or share account information, as examples.

These simulations will track and record the actions employees take, helping organizations gauge the areas of their security awareness that need improvement. The results can be valuable on a number of fronts. If the phishing simulation reveals that certain employees, groups, or the organization as a whole is failing short of established goals or benchmarks, security leaders may offer additional training. Phishing simulation scores can also help cybersecurity leaders making the case to a company’s leaders for ongoing or additional security awareness training investment.

The most effective phishing simulations tend to be:

  • Realistic: A phishing simulation email should appear as true-to-life as possible, including industry-specific real-world threats that employees could expect to encounter.
  • Customizable: Phishing simulations should include templates and campaigns that can be tailored to top threats, unique scenarios, and groups of individuals, for example.
  • Easy to Use: These applications should be easily configured, launched, and integrated with other security awareness training measures.
  • Measurable: Phishing simulation programs should produce data and results to inform an organization’s training and compliance.

Phishing Simulation Best Practices

With the right steps in place, phishing simulations can deliver lasting behavioral change and better overall cyber hygiene. To increase the efficacy of a phishing simulation program, companies should heed best practices, which include:

  • Defining the Goal: The aim of phishing simulations shouldn’t be to trick employees. Rather, organizations should use this tactic to help individuals recognize the tell-tale signs of phishing emails to help them grow more confident in their abilities to identify and report them.
  • Creating a Baseline: Before launching the phishing simulation program, companies may send a simple, unannounced baseline phishing simulation to employees. The results will serve as a starting point to measure against in future simulations.
  • Being Transparent: Other than the baseline, organizations should clearly communicate with employees when a phishing simulation is planned. This approach builds trust and cyber savvy behaviors that help individuals improve their phishing identification skills. The opposite — covertly launching a phishing simulation — may leave employees feeling embarrassed and distrustful that their activities are being monitored.
  • Focusing on the Positive: Rather than highlighting the negative results of a phishing simulation, organizations should focus on the behaviors they want others to emulate. For example, instead of calling out the number of employees who failed a simulation, phishing simulation administrators can highlight the tactics others used to discern whether an email was legitimate or deceitful.
  • Prioritizing Education: Educating employees should be the priority in any phishing simulation program. When an employee has failed a phishing simulation, teachable moments should be delivered immediately in bite-sized, easy-to-consume tips to encourage behavior changes.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Well thought out and effectively administered phishing simulations can significantly reduce workplace phishing attacks and foster a stronger security culture. However, some efforts still fall short. Common reasons for this include:

  • Not Customizing the Simulation: Phishing simulations should be tailored to the groups receiving them. Marketing, for example, should receive different phishing emails than finance in order to expose employees to the specific threats they may encounter. Phishing simulations should also be updated to include new threats and tactics as the cybersecurity landscape evolves.
  • Disregarding Audience Engagement: Cybersecurity awareness training doesn’t need to be boring — in fact, it shouldn’t be. Training modules surrounding phishing simulations should be captivating, engaging, memorable, and even fun. This approach helps employees learn and retain more knowledge, thereby improving cybersecurity outcomes.
  • Launching Difficult Simulations: Building security awareness doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a process. To build employees’ confidence in spotting phishing attempts, simulations should begin with scenarios that are easy to spot and progress to more challenging examples.
  • Neglecting the Board: Boards of directors often have high levels of access to important and valuable information, which make them desirable targets for whaling attacks. To improve the security awareness of board members, be sure to include these individuals in phishing simulations.
  • Failing to Conduct Continuous Training: A phishing simulation shouldn’t be a one-off experience. Organizations should hold monthly trainings to keep cybersecurity top-of-mind and ensure that employees are given regular updates on new attack types.

The Bottom Line

As phishing attacks and resulting breaches continue to plague organizations, companies must take actions to educate employees and instill best practices for recognizing these events. Phishing simulations, as part of a holistic security awareness training program, offer organizations a safe and effective way to combat these threats through training and testing, ultimately improving their security postures.