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COVID-related email subjects biggest threat in phishing scams

Coronavirus-related email subjects remain the biggest threat in phishing scams, according to new research from KnowBe4, a security awareness training and simulated phishing platform.

According to the results of the Q3 2020 top-clicked phishing report, phishing tests with a message related to the coronavirus were the most popular, with a total of 50%. 

Meanwhile, the report found social media messages are another area of concern when it comes to phishing, and LinkedIn phishing messages dominate as the top social media email subject to watch out for, holding the number one spot at 47%.

“During this pandemic, we’ve seen malicious hackers preying on users’ biggest weak points by sending messages that instil fear, uncertainty and doubt,” says Stu Sjouwerman, chief executive officer at KnowBe4. 

“Our Q3 report confirms that coronavirus-related subject lines have remained their most promising attack type, as pandemic conditions weaken judgment, and lead to potentially detrimental clicks," he says.

In Q3 2020, KnowBe4 examined tens of thousands of email subject lines from simulated phishing tests. The organisation also reviewed ‘in-the-wild’ email subject lines that show actual emails users received and reported to their IT departments as suspicious. 

The Top 10 General Email Subjects according to KnowBe4 research: 

  • Payroll Deduction Form 
  • Please review the leave law requirements 
  • Password Check Required Immediately 
  • Required to read or complete: “COVID-19 Safety Policy” 
  • COVID-19 Remote Work Policy Update 
  • Vacation Policy Update 
  • Scheduled Server Maintenance -- No Internet Access 
  • Your team shared "COVID 19 Amendment and Emergency leave pay policy" with you via OneDrive 
  • Official Quarantine Notice 
  • COVID-19: Return To Work Guidelines and Requirements 

*Capitalisation and spelling are as they were in the phishing test subject line. 
**Email subject lines are a combination of both simulated phishing templates created by KnowBe4 for clients, and custom tests designed by KnowBe4 customers. 

When investigating ‘in-the-wild’ email subject lines, KnowBe4 found the most common throughout Q3 2020 included: 

  • Microsoft: View your Microsoft 365 Business Basic invoice 
  • HR: Pandemic Policy Update 
  • IT: Remote Access Infrastructure 
  • Facebook: Account Warning 
  • Check your passport expiration date 
  • TeleMed Appointment Reminder 
  • Twitter: Confirm your identity 
  • Apple: Take part in our iPhone 12 trial and enter for the chance to win a FREE iPhone12 
  • Exchange ActiveSync service disabled for [[email]] 
  • HR: Benefit Report 

*Capitalisation and spelling are as they were in the phishing test subject line. 
**In-the-wild email subject lines represent actual emails users received and reported to their IT departments as suspicious. They are not simulated phishing test emails.