What Are The Benefits of Phishing Simulation Exercises?

Simulated phishing attacks are controlled exercises that emulate the strategies of threat actors who deploy phishing tactics to breach security defenses. These simulations closely resemble real phishing attempts—the kind that your employees might encounter as part of a real cyber attack. This article explores the current state of phishing awareness and then delves into some key benefits of phishing simulation exercises.

Current State of Phishing Awareness

Phishing receives a lot of attention when it comes to cyber scams, but phishing awareness in a business context remains below the level it needs to be. The front line of defense is a security-aware workforce who can spot the signs of phishing. So, what do the stats say about the general level of phishing awareness?

  • Proofpoint’s 2023 State of the Phish report found that 44 percent of people assume emails are safe just because they use familiar branding, even though piggybacking off brand name trust is a very common phishing tactic.
  • The same report found that direct financial losses from phishing attacks increased by 76 percent in 2022.
  • One of the worst outcomes of a cyber attack—dreaded data breaches—involves phishing over one-third of the time.

Going beyond the mere numbers to looking at some of the cyber incidents in recent times is also revealing. An October 2023 data breach at Taiwanese networking equipment manufacturer D-Link stemmed directly from an employee falling victim to a phishing attack. The D-Link breach led to the compromise of customer information, source code, and even info about Taiwanese government officials; all from an employee not spotting the signs of a phishing attack.

So, phishing awareness is clearly not at the level it needs to be to effectively deter threat actors who use these tactics. This is in spite of the fact that many companies run cybersecurity training programs that include phishing modules. One big problem with relying on merely theoretical training is that it doesn’t provide hands-on experience. Without practical application, employees may not be able to translate theoretical knowledge into action when faced with a real phishing attempt.

Benefits of Phishing Simulation Exercises

Barometer of Training Effectiveness

Simulated phishing attacks serve as a direct and practical measure of how effective the social engineering parts of your cybersecurity training are. Whether it’s content that’s too generic or infrequent training, unmasking these issues helps to improve phishing awareness in the long run through better training.

Simulated phishing exercises provide real-world scenarios for employees to apply their knowledge. It’s one thing to answer questions correctly on a multiple-choice test about phishing, and quite another to identify a phishing email in the flow of one’s daily work.

Traditional tests like quizzes measure what employees know, but simulated phishing attacks measure what they actually do with that knowledge. This is important because the ultimate goal of cybersecurity training is to change behavior.

Behavioral Conditioning

Behavioral conditioning is a concept that originates from the field of psychology, particularly through the pioneering work of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist. Pavlov is best known for his work with classical conditioning, which he discovered in the early 20th century through his experiments with dogs. Repeated exposure to the sound of a bell caused dogs to salivate in anticipation of eating a meal because they were conditioned to associate that sound with mealtime.

While humans are rather more complex creatures than dogs, the concept translates to conditioning employees to recognize and respond appropriately to phishing attacks. Repeated simulations can help employees learn to associate certain email characteristics with phishing so that they start to develop a conditioned response. For example, employees may start to feel wary or alert when they see an email with certain characteristics (like a mismatched URL or a request for sensitive information).

Better Risk Assessments

By monitoring how employees interact with simulated phishing emails, you can better assess the level of cybersecurity awareness among staff. These assessments help identify which individuals or departments are most vulnerable to phishing tactics and may need additional training.

Remember that phishing isn’t just a blanket term that means a scammy email. Threat actors deploy many different techniques within phishing to increase the chances of success, and different employees may fall for different types of phishing tactics.

Simulated phishing attacks reveal these vulnerabilities at an individual and departmental level so that you can tailor cybersecurity education programs to address these specific weaknesses. For example, if employees frequently click on links from emails that appear to come from senior management, then you can tweak training to make staff more aware of spoofing and impersonation tactics.

The overall outcome is that your training programs focus on the people who need to increase their awareness the most rather than distracting already security-aware staff with training modules they’re unlikely to gain any extra benefit from.

Real-World Practice

There is a huge difference between knowing about phishing and experiencing it. Simulated attacks provide a practical exercise that embeds the training in employees’ minds through active participation. These exercises transform theoretical knowledge into practical skills, much like a fire drill does for emergency preparedness.

Employees who have “lived through” a simulation are generally better equipped to spot and respond to a real phishing attempt. This real-world practice reinforces their cybersecurity awareness in the process.

A More Security-Conscious Culture

By regularly conducting simulated phishing attacks, companies send the message to employees that cybersecurity is a priority. Controlled exercises foster an environment that encourages employees to share their experiences and learn from each other. Over time, this creates a culture where security is everyone’s responsibility, and staying alert to threats becomes a shared norm among your workforce.

By complementing traditional training modules with phishing simulation exercises, you can create a more dynamic, engaging, and effective cybersecurity awareness program that better prepares employees to identify and avoid real phishing threats.

Our DIESEC security experts are on hand to help guide you through how we can help you implement simulated phishing attempts and improve your overall security awareness levels.

Contact us to learn more about our phishing simulation offerings.