End-to-End Measurements of Email Spoofing Attacks


Hang Hu and Gang Wang, Virginia Tech


Spear phishing has been a persistent threat to users and organizations, and yet email providers still face key challenges to authenticate incoming emails. As a result, attackers can apply spoofing techniques to impersonate a trusted entity to conduct highly deceptive phishing attacks. In this work, we study email spoofing to answer three key questions: (1) How do email providers detect and handle forged emails? (2) Under what conditions can forged emails penetrate the defense to reach user inbox? (3) Once the forged email gets in, how email providers warn users? Is the warning truly effective?

We answer these questions by conducting an end-to-end measurement on 35 popular email providers and examining user reactions to spoofing through a real-world spoofing/phishing test. Our key findings are three folds. First, we observe that most email providers have the necessary protocols to detect spoofing, but still allow forged emails to reach the user inbox (e.g., Yahoo Mail, iCloud, Gmail). Second, once a forged email gets in, most email providers have no warning for users, particularly for mobile email apps. Some providers (e.g., Gmail Inbox) even have misleading UIs that make the forged email look authentic. Third, a few email providers (9/35) have implemented visual security cues on unverified emails. Our phishing experiment shows that security cues have a positive impact on reducing risky user actions, but cannot eliminate the risk. Our study reveals a major miscommunication between email providers and end-users. Improvements at both ends (server-side protocols and UIs) are needed to bridge the gap.

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@inproceedings {217553,
author = {Hang Hu and Gang Wang},
title = {{End-to-End} Measurements of Email Spoofing Attacks},
booktitle = {27th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 18)},
year = {2018},
isbn = {978-1-939133-04-5},
address = {Baltimore, MD},
pages = {1095--1112},
url = {https://www.usenix.org/conference/usenixsecurity18/presentation/hu},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

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