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How often do you think about the security of your electronic healthcare information? Do you trust your medical provider or staff to deliver adequate, year-round phishing prevention to reduce the risk of accidental record disclosures?

Hackers target the healthcare sector thousands of times a week. These phishing exploits not only jeopardize the privacy of patients’ data but also threaten the integrity of trusted healthcare services. At ChartRequest, we created this beginner’s guide to provide a basic understanding of phishing prevention in healthcare. 

We offer insights into best security practices, ensuring HIPAA compliance, and maintaining public trust in healthcare institutions.

What Is a Phishing Cyber Attack?

Phishing is a form of social engineering — a tactic cybercriminals deploy to steal sensitive information from patients and medical databases. Learn more about Social Engineering in healthcare here.

Some hackers may use phishing tactics to lure victims into:

  • Installing malware 
  • Disclosing usernames and passwords
  • Voluntarily giving up protected health information (PHI)
  • Paying a ransom for stolen data
  • Giving direct access to secure networks
  • And more 

This type of cyber attack can be difficult to spot without phishing prevention training and information. Most phishing hackers impersonate legitimate authorities, businesses, or patients with crafty emails and direct messages. Without verifying credentials, healthcare employees might make costly mistakes for their company and millions of other individuals.

Research from The Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) estimates that four out of ten healthcare data breaches begin with phishing attempts. Moreover, reported phishing attacks have doubled since 2020. These numbers emphasize the growing concerns phishing creates in the modern medical industry.

Common Types of Phishing Attacks

Cybercriminals can deploy more than one type of phishing attack, depending on their target. Understanding how each attack works can help you avoid disasters that cost medical facilities an average of $10 million per breach. Improve your phishing prevention knowledge by reviewing these three tactics:

Spear Phishing: Targeted Deception

Spear phishing is the most common form of phishing in the healthcare industry. This tactic involves sending seemingly harmless emails to one or more targets. Most fraudulent emails contain malware or links to suspicious URLs that prompt further action. 

Cybercriminals usually spend time collecting intel on their targets before deploying a spear phishing attack. This way, emails appear personalized and compelling. Hackers may not send emails until they have their targets’ names, professional titles, or department information.

Spear phishing often occurs via email because it is the most effective way to target multiple organizations simultaneously. According to TrendLabs data, users around the globe send a collective 139 billion emails every day. It’s easy to imagine thousands of spear phishing emails slipping through the cracks.

Defray ransomware appeared in 2017, primarily targeting healthcare organizations in the United States and the United Kingdom. Hackers included malware-infected Microsoft Word documents designed to expose vulnerabilities in database security. Once cybercriminals gained access to PHI, they would demand a $5,000 ransom payment for its return.

Whaling: The Big Catch

Whaling is similar to spear phishing in that it targets specific individuals. However, whaling refers to cyberattacks that target the highest powers in an organization.

Victims of whaling attempts may include:

  • C-level executives
  • Board members
  • Founders
  • Presidents
  • IT management
  • Directors and administrators

These high-level healthcare employees sometimes have access to secure company databases. Hackers who can successfully target one of these individuals may be able to develop a deceptive, long-term relationship that results in significant economic losses for the company. Attacks may go on for days or weeks before someone detects a security breach.

In 2022, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a bulletin outlining the severity of whaling and other phishing attacks in healthcare. The HHS warns that the overall trusting nature of healthcare professionals and a lack of phishing prevention training puts protected data at significant risk. Without investing in proper safeguards, like ChartRequest’s secure information-sharing platform, millions of patients’ digital records remain at risk.

Pharming: Phishing Without Lures

Unlike other types of phishing that rely on victims taking action, pharming redirects victims to fraudulent websites without their knowledge or consent. This tactic involves poisoning the Domain Name System (DNS) server, so when a user enters a legitimate web address, hijacker coding redirects them to a malicious site designed to gather sensitive information. It’s a more technical yet equally harmful form of phishing.

It can be challenging to detect these attacks because they can strike numerous users at once. Simultaneous attacks on a healthcare organization can result in confusion and slow response times.

A malicious pharming site may mimic the design and interface of a legitimate organization or authority. Under the impression that they are on a secure site, a user may enter their password or other sensitive information to go about their workday. Unfortunately, cybercriminals can hijack these details and use them for a variety of harmful purposes, such as:

  • Identity Theft: Hackers can steal patients’ names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers with exploited PHI. They can use this information to impersonate someone’s identity during purchases and travel. They can also sell this information on the dark web.
  • Data Breach: Breached medical databases can place a healthcare organization in dangerous financial situations. These high-profile attacks can harm a company’s reputation and may lead to HIPAA violations, lawsuits, and steep fines.
  • Financial Fraud: Many hackers target healthcare facilities to hijack and ransom information or technology. They can also use PHI to fraud banks, investors, and other economic entities.

Protection against pharming primarily involves implementing robust security software to detect and block fraudulent websites. Some high-end security programs can regularly update and patch vulnerable systems in the digital infrastructure. Routine pharming prevention training for office employees can also be an effective proactive measure.

Why Is Phishing Prevention So Important in Healthcare?

Phishing awareness training and policymaking in healthcare is crucial due to the highly confidential nature of patient data.

Additionally, phishing attacks can impede healthcare systems — causing significant disruptions to vital medical services. Successful phishing attacks can lock healthcare providers out of operation-essential systems. Such disruptions can delay standard release of information requests, compromise treatment plans, and force medical staff to revert to manual record-keeping. 

The 2009 HITECH Act outlines phishing prevention and general enterprise risk management (ERM) security recommendations to improve the privacy and efficiency of PHI transfers. Violating standard security measures and training can land any healthcare facility on the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) “Wall of Shame,” reducing public trust and confidence.

The financial burden of a phishing attack comes from potential ransoms demanded by cybercriminals, the costs associated with system recovery, increased security measures, and potential HIPAA regulatory fines for data breaches. Hence, a robust phishing prevention strategy is necessary to protect sensitive patient data and manage the smooth operation of healthcare services.

What Are Common Indicators of Phishing Attempts?

Cybersecurity experts recommend watching for the following elements when receiving an email:

  • Unusual requests for personal data, passwords, or credit card numbers
  • Coercive or threatening language
  • An inflated sense of urgency
  • Spelling mistakes, poor grammar, or unprofessional language
  • Suspicious links or attachments
  • Too-good-to-be-true offers

Remember to verify strangers’ information before responding to their messages or clicking links. Name, title, and location discrepancies may indicate a phishing attempt. 

For example, suppose you regularly communicate with “XYZ Medical Center” based out of Atlanta, GA. One day, you receive an email from “XYZMedical.support@gmail.com” — a different email address than you typically see during the daily correspondence. The sign-off tag notes that someone sent the email from Buffalo, NY. 

In this case, it’s best to alert a security professional to the discrepancy and await further instructions. A hacker may be trying to impersonate someone you trust.

Examples of Phishing Attacks on Healthcare Organizations

Some of the largest healthcare organizations in the United States fall victim to phishing attacks every year. While many companies can isolate and remove threats before they cause significant damage, others lack the infrastructure and preparation needed to avoid calamity. Here are three examples to consider while planning your phishing prevention strategy:

Premera Blue Cross

In 2014, hackers infiltrated Premera Blue Cross databases through malware-infected phishing emails. The attack exposed the personal information of over 10.4 million current and former Blue Cross members. These records included Social Security numbers, credit card information, and more. 

Premera Blue Cross did not detect or respond to the threat for more than nine months, but Blue Cross employees could have identified this problem quickly with the right training.

MEDNAX Services, Inc.

MEDINAX Services is a respected, HIPAA-covered associate that provides administrative services to healthcare organizations. In 2020, a hacker accessed several email accounts within the company’s Microsoft 365 platform. The breach compromised the protected health information of nearly 1.3 million individuals — primarily American Anesthesiology patients.

Adequate phishing prevention policies and third-party record management systems make hacks like this difficult to achieve. 

Oregon Department of Human Services

Even government healthcare agencies can suffer devastating cyberattacks without the proper vigilance. In 2019, cybercriminals used spear phishing tactics to target nine employees at the Oregon Department of Human Services. The attack lasted over two weeks and compromised the sensitive data of over half a million welfare and social service clients. 

How To Avoid Phishing Attacks Before They Begin

Falling victim to phishing attacks can be embarrassing and financially devastating. However, you can protect your sensitive personal information by following a few helpful tips: 

Update Your Release of Information Technology

Assess your current cybersecurity layout and the platform you use for PHI transfers and release of information. Some patients rely on their healthcare providers to store and manage their records on office hard drives. This solution may seem practical for some, but it can jeopardize their information if new or distracted employees allow hackers to exploit their networks.

Instead, encrypted third-party retrieval platforms — like those offered by ChartRequest — provide secure locations for document release. Consider switching to these HIPAA-compliant resources for the best results during record requests.

Carefully Review Every Email

Earlier in this article, we outlined some common indicators of phishing attempts. Review the list and apply it to your day-to-day communications. 

You can also avoid malware by hovering your mouse over the attached URL to reveal hidden links. 

Don’t click anything until you are positive that it is legitimate. If unsure, contact an IT specialist before responding to the email. These security experts will verify whether the email is safe and what to do next.

Develop an Incident Response Plan

It’s wise to have an incident response plan in place before attacks occur. This way, you won’t need to waste time fetching resources if a hacker starts collecting sensitive medical data from you or your patients. 

Ensure that your digital infrastructure is up to date and that security personnel understand your release of information policies. 

Sensitive data may be at risk the moment you click on a phishing link. Still, you can regain control of your database and isolate threats by following these tips:

  • Report the incident to an IT professional and administrator immediately
  • Change all passwords to prevent further network intrusions
  • Disconnect from the internet to prevent malware spread
  • Backup your data on another secure device
  • Check for additional malware in your system
  • Investigate and track the breach
  • Update your phishing prevention strategy

ChartRequest Solutions: The Secure Information Sharing Platform

In a healthcare industry increasingly threatened by phishing attacks, embracing secure platforms like ChartRequest is paramount to protecting sensitive data. 

We excel in providing a reliable, HIPAA-compliant record-sharing platform that reinforces data protection at every level. By mitigating the risk of cyber threats, ChartRequest allows healthcare professionals to focus on their primary mission — delivering quality patient care.

Don’t let cyber threats compromise your organization’s integrity and patient trust. Leverage the power of ChartRequest’s double-authentication to ensure an insulated sharing process. Act now because every second counts when it comes to data security.

Learn more about phishing prevention in healthcare with ChartRequest. Call 888-895-8366 to schedule a comprehensive product demo.

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