9 Signs Your Security Awareness Training is Failing

In this article, I’ll show you why the modern approach to Security Awareness Training & Education (SATE)  is failing and explain how we can do it better.

Like most things that might initially seem impossible, it all begins with a proper mindset. There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, either way you’re right”.

But if this maxim proves true across all industries and cultures, why do we throw our hands up at the thought of properly training users and say “Well, you can’t patch stupid!”?

The only guaranteed way to fail is to say “I can’t”.

Addressing the User Problem

Experienced attackers know that if they want access to a “secure” network all they need to find is the low hanging fruit. An organization’s users often represent the lowest hanging fruit because targeting users allows an attacker to bypass almost ALL security controls. All the attacker has to do is inherit user privileges to gain access to the network and then they are free to cause as much damage as possible.

Enterprises are not properly addressing their user risk, and because of this, it’s a wide open gap in most security departments. Does your organization approach network security like this character from Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events?

lemony snicket meme

If you don’t properly address your user problem, this is exactly what your security looks like. Attackers know that they can always bypass security controls by targeting the weakest link…your users. Even the most sophisticated digital security perimeter puts the attacker in the DMZ, but the attacker wants to be in the user land where the data resides and where the security controls are a lot less likely to catch said attacker.

The truth is that human error is the ultimate root cause of every cyber incident. So if we can do better with human decision-making, we can do better with security.

But how?

Investing in Your Users

The answer lies in investing in your users. But I’m willing to admit that securing users is not easy to implement. It takes a dedicated effort of time and money (or both) if you really want to properly secure your users. But it can be done and it should be done. And if it should be done, it should be done well.

It should actually be effective!

The modern approach to Security Awareness Training & Education (SATE) is failing, but that’s not just my opinion. The proof is in the numbers. We are spending more on cyber security than we ever have, yet we are seeing a record number of cyber incidents.

So how do we do this well? First, let’s talk about why the current model is failing.

Training & Educating the Right Way

The current SATE approach has disconnected everything the marketing folks have taught us about conditioning human behavior. At PeopleSec, we embrace what marketers have learned about human emotion and behavior and use those paradigms to develop training programs for our clients and their users.

If implemented properly, the following methodologies can have a significant impact on security and reduce user risk to nearly 0%.

1. High Frequency “Micro Training”

Due to the 144 character social media world in which we currently live, user training should be bite-sized and easy to digest. It’s often much more effective to provide 60 different one-minute training sessions throughout the year than just one annual 60-minute training session.

Because users have short attention spans and a tendency to relapse after learning, constant reminders are needed. Phishing threats evolve daily, not yearly, quarterly or even monthly, so proper user training should reflect the fast-paced nature of the threats we are trying to stop.

We must be constantly educating our users.

2. Measure Everything

If you can imagine it, you can measure it.

Another aspect we borrowed from our marketing friends is the importance of tracking, measuring and analyzing everything our client’s users do during training sessions (for example, phishing emulations).

The best SATE programs should have proper insight into user risk and this can’t be properly done without the right data. If you’re only trying to evaluate risk once per quarter or month, you’re not going to identify the risky users and are leaving gaps in your perimeter and your users become the low hanging fruit. Our system ranks all users as high, medium or low risk based on multiple metrics such as:

  • Did the user open the phishes? Did the user open the educational emails?
  • How long does it take for the user to relapse or forget their training?
  • What was the cumulative risk of that user each month?
  • How many months has the user spent as Low, Medium and High risk?
  • What was the cumulative difficulty of the phishes sent during the attack emulation this month compared to the previous month?
  • What type of phishes is the user most susceptible to?

The best decisions are made using the best data. If individual and collective user data is not there, you’re setting your enterprise up for failure.

3. User-Specific Training

SATE programs should customize training frequency, content and attack simulations to the individual needs of each user. For example, why should a SATE program waste the time of “low-risk” users by giving them training that’s intended only for “high-risk” users?

Alternatively, high-risk users tend to need so much education that the impact on human resources would be cost prohibitive without mass customization. So we train according to each user’s need and escalate training frequency and testing as needed.

It’s also important to change the tone of training materials based on user risk (higher risk = more aggressive). It makes sense to only send high difficulty phishes and spear phishes to your lowest risk users.

Using the data we collect (see #2 above), we can preemptively increase attack simulation and education frequency based on previously recorded metrics (such as user retention rate). Even if you can’t get down to the specific individual user, at least users can be classified into high, medium and low risk categories and customize training for those 3 groups.

4. Human Intervention

Technology can only drive user risk numbers to a certain low and, therefore, human intervention is required to drive numbers even lower. When it comes to changing individual user’s behavior, we’ve found that it’s typically better to use carrots rather than sticks.

Users need to feel like they are either part of the solution or part of the problem. Some employees only become receptive and participative AFTER a human being has talked to them. For example, a simple phone call can help to move a user from the high risk group to the low risk group.

Often it’s not even an employee’s fault. Sometimes it’s a business process that’s at the root of the problem. When we notice a particular department within a client’s organization that has a high level of susceptibility for a particular type of phish, this can often be traced back to a faulty business process. We can then address the cause using a focus group and remedy the vulnerability by encouraging the organization to change their business process.

Simple human interaction can increase the comfort zone of people, making them more apt to learn, change, and retain what they need. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of this and adjust our SATE training accordingly?

5. Timely Education

Programs that don’t capitalize on “Just in Time” education opportunities are missing a valuable time for education while the user is highly receptive (at the moment a mistake is realized). For example, if a user clicks on one of our phishing emulations, we often give instant feedback with a  landing page announcement, immediate email notification, or phone call.

We want to make sure we prioritize education over exploitation. It’s often more effective to invoke an emotional response from the user. This helps solidify the training in their mind and produces a higher retention rate.

6. Entertaining & Engaging Content

Usually long content is, by default, boring. Lengthy content causes the user to lose interest and impersonal content causes users to not engage.

At PeopleSec, we limit the length of most of our training sessions to under 1 minute and we often use humor to help drive user retention. Again, if it works in marketing, we can make it work in security awareness education too.

7. High Frequency Attack Emulations

Programs that don’t conduct high frequency phishing attack emulations tend to have higher use relapse percentages. This leaves users susceptible to real world targeted attacks.

Increasing the frequency and number of phishing attack emulations against the user has the net benefit of obtaining key metrics and is the best way to truly understand risk.

Attack emulations should vary in difficulty and frequency, just like real life. They should include, spear phishing, complex general target phishes, and easily identifiable mass phishes (ie Nigerian style).

Get creative with these and be proactive with your training. If there is a specific phish hitting your industry, then conduct attack emulations of that exact threat before it happens. Users will be better prepared if/when they see it in the wild.

8. Create Competition

Social engineering attacks manipulate employee emotions to get what the attacker wants, so SATE programs should do likewise to get employees motivated to become more secure.

“Gamify” security training by creating a competition between departments and award the winning department with a catered lunch. You could even create a leaderboard and award the most secure users in the company.

Additionally, our training programs include emotional stimuli on phish emulation landing pages. We utilize “scareware” to help elicit an emotional response from the user.  This includes things like green text on a black screen, changing the desktop background, and multiple pop ups that require the user to read each bubble (which contains security awareness education)  and click “I agree” before they can regain use of their computer.

9. Create & Sustain Vigilance

No one is immune from making an occasional mistake now and then. Even InfoSec staff can get complacent when reading emails if, for example, they are struggling through a stressful situation at home (divorce, death in the family, etc).

To help stay vigilant, every organization should have a standard email signature and an alert at the top of every email that indicates if it’s an external or internal email. Give your users a clear way of knowing if an email is safe by including a secure passphrase or tagline. You might even use nicknames instead of real names when communicating with employees via email.

It’s important to create an easy avenue for users to report legitimate phishing attacks (and add that to your metrics too). Most security awareness programs today do not measure employee’s failure to report a legitimate phish.

PeopleSec Can Help

If you now realize that your organization’s users are vulnerable to phishing attacks and other cyber security threats; or you aren’t sure if you’re doing all you can to reduce user risk to nearly 0%, contact us today and we’ll be glad to assess your organization’s security risk.

Learn What Phishing is and How to Prevent It

The security of your enterprise depends not only on the actual security procedures you have in place, but also in how well you and your employees follow those procedures. It’s vital to understand what you’re protecting the business against so you can explain to your employees exactly what they need to look out for.

One such threat to businesses today is called phishing, which can be used to trick you or your employees into giving out information that could enable hackers to access your enterprise’s data.

What is Phishing?

Phishing, which is a play on the word “fishing,” is an attempt to maliciously gain information from a computer user by means of an email or similar message. This works by convincing the recipient of the phishing email that the sender is a legitimate source. The target will then reply, giving up their personal information or clicking on a link to a fake website and entering their information there.

Today, phishing is used to steal information from computer users both at home and at their place of employment. This could be a goldmine for hackers because, even if the hacker doesn’t intend to use the information themselves, they can potentially make a significant amount of money selling the information on the dark web.

The History of Phishing

Phishing began in the early 1990’s, with the term being coined somewhere in the mid-1990’s. The earliest attempts at phishing consisted of hackers sending a stranger a message through AOL’s instant messenger system. The hacker claimed to be an employee of AOL and requested the person’s login information. Once they had this information, the hacker could log into the person’s account and, potentially steal the person’s identity or their credit card information.

Shortly after the phishing attempts began, they extended to emails instead of just using AOL messenger. They often targeted individuals and attempted to gain the login information for AOL, banks, and other businesses. This enabled them to get even more information about the person to use on their own or to sell to other hackers. In fact, the information gained could be used as a sort of currency to access other hacking tools.

Since then, phishing has grown and has started targeting consumers and employees of enterprises alike. The emails have become more sophisticated, with fewer errors that could alert the recipients to the email being a scam. The websites they copy in order to gain information look like real website and may even have a URL that’s close to the real website, for example instead of

There are now multiple different types of phishing attacks as well as many notorious attacks that have occurred in recent years. These attacks have enabled hackers to gain access to significant amounts of information and have caused quite a bit of damage. Business owners and consumers should be aware of these issues and what methods can be used to prevent a phishing attack.

Anthem Inc. Phishing Scam

Anthem, Inc. is a very large healthcare company in the United States. In 2015, unauthorized access to their data enabled hackers to steal social security numbers, birth dates, names, employment and income data from customers of Anthem. This was all possible because one employee opened a phishing email on one of the computers connected to Anthem’s data system.

Opening the email triggered a file download that allowed the hacker to gain remote access to the employee’s computer. Once the hackers had remote access, it was easy for them to obtain the data for which they were looking. Healthcare data can be worth quite a bit of money to hackers as the data includes much of the information needed for identity theft.

Anthem, Inc.’s security breach led to the possibility of almost 80 million users’ data being compromised. They ended up settling a lawsuit for the breach by paying a $115 million settlement. A lot of the funds from the settlement, originally brought by 100 of the people who had their data stolen, will likely be used for monitoring their credit to make sure the victim’s identity wasn’t stolen.

Operation Phish Phry

Operation Phish Phry was an attempt to catch cyber criminals who were using phishing to steal bank account information and money from their victims. The investigation began in 2007 and the aim was to catch hackers trying to steal Wells Fargo and Bank of America account information through emails sent to the banks’ users.

Though the operation began in the United States, Egypt helped the FBI find and arrest over 100 individuals who took part in this phishing scam. Through the two-and-a-half-year investigation, those who were arrested were found to be carrying out a phishing scam that led to the theft of more than $1.5 million from victims who opened an email thinking it was from their own bank.

Target Data Breach

One of the largest breaches, the Target data breach occurred in 2013. It ended up impacting more than 70 million consumers. The data stolen included names, email addresses, phone numbers, and mailing addresses. After the breach occurred, it was discovered that a vendor working with Target was the unwilling cause of the breach.

The vendor opened an email that included malware, which downloaded to his computer and was used to obtain the credentials to access Target’s data. Because of the huge number of customers who were potentially impacted by this, the total costs could reach over $1 billion. In fact, banks alone spent more than $172 million in the months after the attack on replacing payment cards for their customers that might have been impacted.

6 Methods to Prevent Phishing Attacks

As a business owner or upper level manager, it’s important to know how to prevent phishing attacks and how to teach employees about the dangers of phishing attacks and how they can be avoided. There are 6 ways for business owners and employees to prevent any phishing attack from gaining access to your business’s data.

  1. Be Wary of Emails Asking for Personal Information
    Emails that ask for personal information are likely phishing attempts and not legitimate emails. They might appear to come from a bank or another business, or even a co-worker or employee. However, these emails could be a result of hacking or a phishing attempt to gain personal information that can be used to get more information or data.
  2. Do Not Download Unknown Attachments
    If an email has an attachment, it’s always better to confirm the attachment is legitimate if it’s not expected. Also, when downloading the attachment, save it to a folder before opening it. If the attachment isn’t what’s expected (for instance, .exe instead of .pdf), it’s likely malware and should not be opened. The malware can be used to log everything that’s typed into the computer or to remotely access the computer.
  3. Be Wary of Clicking Links in Emails
    Links in emails, even if they’re sent by someone you know, might not be safe to click. If the email doesn’t seem like it was written by that person, do not click the links. They might lead to a website that automatically downloads malware to the computer. In cases where the email seems to be from a bank or other business, the link might lead to a fake website designed to encourage you to enter your information. Instead, type in the link address manually.
  4. Call Before Clicking or Downloading
    Any emails that are suspicious should be dealt with carefully. If possible, contact the person sending the email message via telephone to ensure the email was sent by them and is a legitimate email. This can help minimize the chance of clicking on a dangerous link or downloading a malicous file.
  5. Keep Security Software Up to Date
    All your employee’s computers should have updated security software at all times. The security systems for the computers should include updated anti-malware software so it has the highest chance of catching any malware before it can impact the computer.
  6. Learn How to Spot Phishing Emails
    Knowing the warning signs of phishing emails is crucial. Many of these emails are going to ask for information and try to make it sound like the information is needed urgently. They might also warn that the account discussed in the email has been compromised and ask for personal information to update the password. Many of these emails include poor spelling or grammar, even if it’s only a few mistakes throughout the email.
PeopleSec Can Help

Phishing can cause enterprises significant amounts of damage, often costing them millions of dollars. As a business owner or upper level manager, you should be aware of the potential dangers of phishing and how to prevent it for your enterprise.

Contact PeopleSec today to learn more about securing your business or enterprise from cyber attacks. We’ll help you protect your enterprise from phishing scams as well as other types of cyber crime to ensure your systems and data are properly secured.

Phishing with emotion and stress results in bad choices

Recently on one of my personal sites, I received the below phishing attempt:


I see a ton of phishing examples as part of PeopleSec’s Security Awareness Training and Education (SATE) program.  It is not often a phish in the wild catches my eye and looks like anything other than spam.  This email is an excellent example.  It causes stress that invokes an emotional reaction which in turn solicits an emotional response.

“Emotions can cloud our judgment and influence our decisions when triggered by the [stressful] situation at hand,” stated by Harvard Business Review (

Emotional responses are at the core of successful social engineering and phishing attacks.  As an aside, the success of emotional responses is why we use so many of them in PeopleSec’s SATE program.

In summary, it is hard to keep emotions in check, and they cloud your ability to think.  So when you are stressed and emotional, Think Before You Click.