Male professional after email account takeover
6 min

Account Takeover Attacks: How To Lock Down Your Email Inbox

In a society where digital communication is thriving, email remains a key channel for both business and personal use. But what happens when your email account is compromised – especially when it contains sensitive information?

In this guide, we take a look at what an email account takeover is, the potential repercussions, and the preventative measures to put in place. 

What Is Email Account Takeover?

Email account takeover is the unauthorised access or control of someone else's email account.

Cybercriminals typically achieve this through a variety of malicious methods, with the intention of using the compromised account to gain access to sensitive information, finances, or as a springboard to carry out further attacks.

Who’s At Risk Of Email Account Takeover?

Anyone with an email account is at risk of email account takeover.

However, some groups may be more at risk than others because of their status or the nature of the information they handle. This can include high-net-worth individuals and those who work in professional services, such as the legal and financial services industries.

How Do Hackers Gain Access To Your Email Account?

There are multiple techniques that threat actors can use to gain access to someone’s email account. The most common ones to be aware of include:

Phishing attacks: Cybercriminals send deceptive emails or messages, enticing victims to click on malicious links. Once clicked, victims may be directed to fake login pages where they unknowingly enter their email credentials, giving attackers access.

Credential stuffing: Cybercriminals use automated tools to try username and password combinations from previous data breaches, potentially accessing to email accounts.

Man-in-the-middle attacks: Threat actors can intercept communications between two parties, especially on insecure or public networks. They can capture or alter sensitive information exchanged, including login credentials.

Keylogging: Malware can be installed on a user's device to record keystrokes, allowing attackers to capture login credentials when a victim accesses their email.

Social engineering: Through psychological manipulation, cybercriminals can trick individuals into revealing confidential information, such as passwords. This often involves impersonating a trusted individual or entity.

What Are The Risks Associated With Account Takeover?

If your email account has been compromised, several outcomes may happen, each one posing a risk to either you personally or the organisation you work for. These include:

Financial loss: Attackers who access financial data within your email, such as banking details, can withdraw funds or misuse critical business information.

Identity theft: If sufficient data is present in your account, threat actors can piece together the information to commit identity fraud. This enables them to make purchases, open new accounts, or even commit crimes in your name.

Spreading malware: Attackers can use compromised email accounts to distribute malware to contacts, potentially leading to further data theft, ransomware attacks, or system compromise.

Damage to reputation: Compromised accounts, especially business emails containing client data, can result in a damaged reputation for the organisation and a loss of customer trust.

Business Email Compromise (BEC): Cybercriminals who access an email account can impersonate the owner, deceiving individuals or organisations into authorising fraudulent transactions or disclosing sensitive information.

Prevention: Best Practices To Secure Your Email Inbox

Having a strong cyber strategy in place can help to prevent the majority of digital threats. These are the recommended steps you can carry out to minimise the risk of experiencing an attack:

1. Use Strong Passwords

Your credentials are the first line of defence against email account compromise. Utilising a strong password will reduce the likelihood of threat actors gaining unauthorised access to your account.

The National Cyber Security Centre suggests that you decide on a unique password for each account you own, combining three random words to create a password that is ‘long enough and strong enough’. This minimises the risk of credential stuffing being used against you.

If you have difficulty remembering the passwords to different accounts, utilise a password manager to keep your login details accessible, but secure.

2. Enable Multi-factor Authentication

When an attacker manages to breach your account using your credentials, having multi-factor authentication (MFA) enabled on your account can prevent them from gaining access.

MFA requires you to verify your identity during the log-in process, usually by entering a code sent to your phone. As the attacker would not have your device, they could not pass the verification stage.

Authentication can also be used to secure individual emails. Senders can set recipient challenges that they must pass before they can read the contents of an email, ensuring sensitive information is read by the intended individual only.

3. Implement Encryption

Email encryption is the technique of scrambling and disguising email information to prevent unauthorised third parties from reading the transmitted content.

The recipient is the only person who has access to the ‘key’ that decrypts the email, ensuring that the email can only be read by them and the original sender.

While email providers often offer a basic level of encryption, if you are dealing with sensitive data on a daily basis, it is recommended that you invest in a specialist security solution that provides strong levels of encryption.

For example, end-to-end encryption keeps data protected both in transit and at rest, meaning that attackers cannot read the email at any point in its journey, preventing threats such as man-in-the-middle attacks.

4. Keep Devices Secure

The devices on which you access your email play a key role in ensuring the security of your account.

If the software on your mobile or computer is outdated, especially those installed specifically for security, there is a much larger risk of malicious attacks successfully penetrating your device. This is often because updates include security patches for recently discovered vulnerabilities that hackers have managed to exploit.

If you have difficulty remembering when to check for new installations, enabling automatic updates can ensure that your software remains up to date.

5. Conduct Awareness Training

Human error can play a large part in opening yourself up to risk from threat actors – especially when it comes to email account compromise.

Ensuring that you or your employees undergo awareness training to learn how to detect key threats, such as phishing, puts you in a firm position to identify and avoid an attack.

Recovery: Immediate Steps To Take After A Suspected Attack

While prevention is always the most effective method of minimising risk, it is also vital to have a robust recovery plan in place if the worst-case scenario were to occur. There are several steps to take when discovering your account may have been compromised:

1. Change password - Immediately switch out the password for your email account, ensuring that the new one is strong and unique.

2. Review account activity - Review all account activity, including login history and sent emails, to identify any suspicious actions and determine the extent of the compromise.

3. Inform your email provider and/or workplace - Contact your email service provider promptly to report the incident and to help you regain access if necessary. If your business email has been compromised, immediately get in touch with your IT team to determine next steps.

4. Check other accounts - Inspect other key accounts that you own, especially if they are linked to the compromised email or that use the same password, as attackers often exploit your email to gain access to other assets, such as your bank account.

Prioritising Email Security

Account compromise can be a serious threat to both personal and business data.

It is vital that, as an organisation, you implement an appropriate cybersecurity strategy and utilise secure email software to protect the sensitive information contained within email communications. Otherwise, you risk compromising both customers’ data and their trust.


Originally posted on 02 10 23
Last updated on October 17, 2023

Posted by: Sabrina McClune

Sabrina McClune is an expert researcher with an MA in Digital Marketing. She was a finalist in the Women In Tech Awards 2022. Sabrina has worked extensively with B2B technology companies conducting and compiling thorough academically driven research to produce online and offline media. She loves to read fantasy novels and collect special edition books.

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