If you think of the internet as the wild west, cyber scams are akin to snake oil. And just like the snake oil salesmen of old, scammers will try anything and everything to persuade you into believing what they’re saying is true.
But beneath the surface, cybercriminal schemes are plotted with far more malicious intent. They’re not just trying to fool you, they want to exploit your personal, financial, and other sensitive information for personal or monetary gain. That’s internet fraud in a nutshell.
But here’s the thing: Scammers aren’t always so easy to identify. In fact, they’re becoming so daring, deceiving, and sophisticated that some schemes are nearly impossible to spot with the naked eye. When it comes to protecting student data, your school district can’t afford to take anything at face value.
Fortunately, there’s a smarter approach to data security. Let’s walk you through the basics of cloud-based cyber scams and what you need to know to identify, investigate, and mitigate them in Google Workspace.
A brief intro to cyber scams
If any industry should be concerned about navigating the increasingly nefarious web of internet scams, it’s K-12 education. Why? Because scammers, hackers, and other forms of cybercriminals are targeting school districts at an unprecedented rate. According to Microsoft’s tracker of global threat activity, education is far and away the most impacted industry with nearly six million incidents in the past 30 days. The next closest industry — retail — clocks in at just 580,000.
Why are scammers targeting school districts? There are three primary reasons:
1. Students are an easy target:
K-12 students may be native to the internet, but they’re not always well-versed in cyber safety best practices. Without an understanding of the do’s and don’ts, they could easily fall victim to a scammer’s enticing tactics.
2. No cloud security:
Nearly all school districts are in the cloud using edtech tools like Google Workspace to facilitate lessons, perform administrative tasks, and collaborate remotely, but just 20% are implementing any cloud security solutions to match. In other words, a lot of student data is exposed which cybercriminals can easily access.
3. School data is extremely lucrative:
Student data is especially sensitive information, which makes it all the more valuable to a cybercriminal.
Any way you look at it, school data security is increasingly synonymous with cloud security. But without any proper cloud security to speak of, school district data is essentially up for grabs — and scammers aren’t missing the opportunity.
Cyber scammer tactics and threat vectors
Cybercriminals develop new tactics all the time, but they frequently return to their most basic (and often most effective) strategies. Here are the four primary types to look out for in Google Workspace:
1. Phishing scams
A phishing scam refers to any social engineering scheme that attempts to obtain personal information, login credentials, or other sensitive data by tricking the victim into providing those details. Phishing scammers often pass themselves off as a legitimate or trustworthy source to fool students and staff into believing their authenticity.
Take Gmail, for example. A scammer might send a student an unsolicited email pretending to be a school administrator or teacher. If the student falls into their trap, they might unwittingly reveal information that could help the scammer steal their identity or hack their account.
Any virus, malicious code, or infection can be classified as malware. This type of attack might be included in a phishing email as an attachment or link. If a student downloads that attachment or follows the link, they may open the door for malware to enter your cloud environment and gain unfettered access to student data.
As a type of malware, ransomware works by holding data hostage in exchange for payment. Once a scammer gains access to school data, such as through a phishing attack or malware strike, they can block the school from accessing it until they’ve been paid.
And in the case that a school refuses to pay the ransom, the attackers can either sell the information or publicly leak it on the internet. As far as cyber scams are concerned, ransomware attacks are perhaps the most consequential.
4. Account takeovers
An account takeover refers to when login credentials are compromised or an account has been jeopardized by an unauthorized third party — i.e., the hacker. Because school accounts have access to certain types of cloud data, they can be especially damaging for the district.
For example, school officials in Portland, Oregon revealed in May 2022 that an account takeover recently cost them $1.4 million in fraudulent activity. The attack originated from an email breach that granted the hackers access to a treasure trove of school information.
8 most common signs of a cyber scam
Scams come in all shapes and sizes, but fortunately, they often leave behind a few common breadcrumbs. These clues are essential when it comes to detecting and mitigating a threat as quickly as possible in your Google Workspace environment.
Here’s a list of the most telltale signs of a scam that might be occurring in your school district cloud:
1. Messages sent from a public domain: No legitimate organization — especially not Google — will send emails from a public domain, such as one that reads “@gmail.com.”
2. Grammar mistakes: Misspellings and poorly written text are dead giveaways that something malicious is afoot.
3. Suspicious attachments and links: As a hallmark of phishing scams, any communication that asks you to download or click anything suspicious is enough cause for concern.
4. Sense of urgency: Think “immediate action needed,” or “urgent payment required.” Any language that urges you to act now is likely a social engineering tactic.
5. Unusual activity: If you notice unusual data usage, excessive downloading, and other anomalous behavior, there may be an account takeover taking place.
6. Strange applications: Third-party apps may be helpful learning tools, but they also pose a risk to your data. If an app is poorly reviewed or unverified by your domain it may be designed to inject malware into your cloud.
7. Asking for personal information: Communications that request sensitive data, such as personal or financial information, are likely a scammer phishing for victims.
8. Unusual login activity: Login attempts from abnormal locations, especially those from countries known for state-sponsored cybercrime, could indicate that someone is attempting to crack into an account.
In truth, the list goes on, but these are the signs that every school security team should be familiar with before they can appropriately mitigate cloud-based cybercrime in their district.
How to respond to and mitigate a potential scam
You know the signs, now you need to know the next steps. Luckily, there are many tangible actions you can take that can effectively improve your cloud security posture and thwart any scammer before it’s too late. Let’s outline a few of the most critical:
1. Enforce Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
By mandating MFA for all of your Google cloud accounts, you require all users to provide multiple means of validating their credentials. This allows you to reduce the chances of an account takeover and protects your Google Workspace data from unauthorized access.
2. Delete suspicious emails and communications
The best way to respond to a phishing scam is to not respond at all. Deleting the communication and reporting it is by far the best way to ensure nobody — students and staff alike — fall into the trap. The only way that a phishing attack can succeed is if an attachment is downloaded, a link is clicked on, or if the recipient willingly provides sensitive information.
3. Remove risky third-party apps
Performing a clean sweep of your cloud environment can help you identify any third-party apps that don’t belong — especially those that might put your data at risk. A proper assessment of your edtech stack can distinguish between healthy apps and those that are a threat.
4. Revoke access permissions from compromised accounts
If an account is taken over by a bad actor, it’s only a matter of time before they try to access sensitive data or perform a lateral phishing attack. Prevent unauthorized exfiltration by revoking access to certain sources of information — i.e., Google Drive, Google Chat, etc. — before it’s too late.
The advantage of a cloud security solution
The steps above are a great way to get the ball rolling, but aren’t easy to accomplish if you’re without the right resources. An automated cloud security platform can streamline risk detection, mitigation, and policy enforcement under one single solution. With the right provider by your side, you can leverage the benefits of advanced cloud security capabilities:
- Content and keyword inspection: If you use a cloud security platform that’s equipped with content and keyword inspection, you can use artificial intelligence to do the digging on your behalf. AI scans the content of Google Workspace, including Gmail, Chat, Google Docs, and more, and can identify signs of a potential scam.
- Automated policy enforcement: When it comes to spotting a scammer, you can’t possibly look everywhere all at once — a cloud security platform can. With the right choice of cloud security, you can leverage automated policy enforcement capabilities to proactively monitor Google Workspace and tackle any threats as soon as they arise.
- Rapid quarantining and incident investigation: When a risky app, email, or other threat is detected, you can quickly put it into quarantine. By doing so, you prevent students from accessing that risk and investigate the incident further to confirm your suspicions.