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Protecting yourself from spearphishing attacks

Tuesday, March 12th, 2019

For a large enterprise like Stellenbosch University phishing attacks are the most common cybercrime.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were all inundated with spam emails, selling everything from fake pharmaceuticals to cheap perfumes. With spam, cybercriminals use a blanket approach sending emails to as many people as possible, hoping a few gullible customers will be funding further spam emails.

General “shotgun” phishing is still a problem today, but the past 18 months have seen a rise in a more sinister form of cyberattack,  spearphishing, which is much more targeted to an individual or an enterprise’s email system.

Spearphishing is similar to phishing, it’s also a vector for identity theft where cybercriminals try to get users to hand over personal and sensitive information without their knowledge.

Cybercriminals view phishing attacks as a profitable and an easy way to gain access to an enterprise enabling them to launch more sophisticated attacks, for example, spearphishing attacks. Humans are, after all,  the weakest link and thus the most effective target for criminals looking to infiltrate a network like the university.

Even though spearphishing is more focused than its less-sophisticated relative phishing, everyone can apply the following principles to protect yourself and the university against cybercriminal activity:

Use common sense when it comes to phishing attacks
Be sensible and smart while browsing online and checking your emails. Never click on links, download files or open attachments in email or social media, even if it appears to be from a known, trusted source. You should never click on links in an email to a website unless you are absolutely sure it’s authentic. If you have any doubt, open a new browser window and type the address into the address bar. Always be wary of emails asking for confidential information – especially if it asks for personal details or banking information. The university and your bank will never request sensitive information via email. They do not need it. They have it all already.

Watch out for shortened links
Pay particularly close attention to shortened links, especially on social media. Cybercriminals often use,, or to trick you into thinking you are clicking a legitimate link when in fact, you are being inadvertently directed to a fake site. Always place your mouse over a web link in an email (known as “hovering”) to see if you’re being sent to the right website.

Does the email look suspicious? Read it again
Many phishing emails are obvious. They will be filled with plenty of spelling mistakes, CAPITALISATION and exclamation marks. They will also have impersonal salutations – e.g. ‘Dear Valued Customer’ or ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ salutations – and will have implausible and generally suspicious content. Cybercriminals will often intentionally make mistakes in their emails bypass spam filters and improve responses. 

Be wary of threats and urgent deadlines
Sometimes the university does need you to do something urgently, however, this is an exception rather the rule. For example, you all have been getting reminders to reactivate your network account by the end of March. Threats and urgency, especially coming from what claims to be a legitimate company, are a giveaway sign of phishing. Some of these threats may include notices of a fine or advising you to take action to stop your account from being closed. Ignore the scare tactics and rather contact the company via phone.

Browse securely with HTTPS
You should always, where possible, use a secure website, indicated by https:// and a security “lock” icon in the browser’s address bar, to browse. This is particularly important when submitting sensitive information online, such as credit card details.

Never use public, unsecured Wi-Fi, including MatiesWiFi, for banking, shopping or entering personal information online. Convenience should never be more important than safety. When in doubt, use your mobile’s 3/4G or LTE connection.

[ARTICLE by David Wiles]

Phishing attempt: “SARS eFiling Letter notification”

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

An email with the subject “SARS eFiling Letter Notification” was sent from a staff email to staff and students on campus. The email asks you to click on a link to download your SARS documents (See example below)

This is not a legitimate SARS email, but a phishing attempt from a compromised sun email account.

SARS will never ask you to provide any personal information by means of email. By clicking on links and providing your information, you give criminals access to your personal information and your accounts.

If you clicked on the link in this phishing email, immediately change your password on For enquiries contact the IT Service Desk by logging a request or calling 808 4367. More information on phishing is available on our blog and Twitter.

Click for a larger version.

Phishing attempt from sun email account

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

If you receive an email from a sun email account with the subject “To All Faculty\Staff of Stellenbosch University“, asking you to click on a link to upgrade your webmail, please do not respond and provide your information (see example at the bottom of this post).

This is not a legitimate email notification from Information Technology and we will never ask you to give your personal information via an email link. The suspicious email is being sent from a compromised email account and is a clever phishing attempt.

When you click on links and provide your information on phishing emails, criminals will be able to gain access to your personal information. If you clicked on the link of this phishing email, immediately change your password on

For any enquiries please contact the IT Service Desk by logging a request or calling 808 4367. More information on phishing is available on our blog and Twitter.

Click for larger image

Phishing scams requesting quotes and notification about “new message”

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018

Phishing attacks on the university continue with this week’s “flavour” being a return of the old “Request For Quotation” scam. With this scam you might receive an email from a large corporation arrives asking for you to provide a quotation, with an attached PDF that you are asked to fill in and send back to the sender.

Why would an academic department secretary be getting an RFQ to supply industrial supplies like sewage pumps? Scammers often only want to steal information from their victims, and in the case of the Faculty of Health Sciences, the scam RFQ could change to supply something like medical supplies or equipment.

Remember the email may look very convincing, with known company letterheads, VAT certificates etc.

It is important not to respond to the sender or to open up the attachment. Often scammers just need a response so they can identify “live bait” and fine-tune their attack to a particular person.

Another phishing scam that appears to be coming back uses attention-getting subjects like “You have a new message” or “We’ve resolved your dispute” or “SARS refund pending” designed to get your attention. This particular one uses forged “Citibank” branding and informs you that a dispute has been resolved and you will be paid some money, but you are asked to open up a “document” to see the disputed transaction.

The danger is in the document which will be download if you click on the link. In this particular case, it is a document with embedded macros that will install malware on your computer to steal personal information. Normally macros in Microsoft Word are disabled by default, but if you have enabled them for legitimate reasons then there would be a danger to your computer if you attempt to open the attached document.

These phishing scams are sent out to many university email addresses at the same time, so you are not personally being targeted by the phishers. These attacks will continue in various forms, because there are still individuals who fall for these scams, making phishing attacks very profitable.

If you do receive mail like this then please report it to IT Cyber Security. Once you have reported the spam or phishing mail, you can delete it immediately. You can do this in two ways:

  1. By reporting it on the ICT Partner Portal. Go to and select “Report phishing, spam and malware” right at the bottom of the list. Fill in your information and add the email as an attachment. Your request will automatically be logged on the system.
  2. By sending an email
    – Start up a new mail addressed to 
    – Use the Title “SPAM” (without quotes) in the Subject.
    – With this New Mail window open, drag the suspicious spam/phishing mail from your Inbox into the New Mail Window. It will attach the mail as an enclosure and a small icon with a light yellow envelope will appear in the attachments section of the – New Mail.
    – Send the mail.

[Article by David Wiles]

Cybersecurity Awareness month: Some statistics and common sense advice

Monday, November 5th, 2018

It’s November and Cybersecurity Awareness month is behind us. As a final signoff,  we would like to share a few statistics and give some common sense advice to help you spot phishing scams.

Surely South Africa is not sophisticated or advanced enough to be included in phishing attacks? According to Drew van Vuuren, CEO of 4Di Privaca, South Africa is the second most targeted country globally when it comes to phishing attacks.

The cost of phishing in South Africa amounted to approximately R4.2 billion in 2013 alone and 5% of phishing attacks globally occur in South Africa. It is not a matter of “if” the university is going to be a target, but “when”. Phishing attacks are not Information Technology’s concern, but should also be yours as a user of the internet. 

According to a 2016 survey by Symantec, over 30% of South African internet users share at least three pieces of personal information on their social media profiles which could be used to steal their identity. 

60% of the respondents admitted that they had no idea what their privacy settings were and who could see their personal information on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc.

People often become victims of online fraud by using the same password or usernames on multiple sites, including social media sites and internet banking sites. According to Ofcom’s “Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report 2013” report, 55% of the poll respondents used the same password for most, if not all, websites.

Here are 10 common-sense tips to help you spot and prevent becoming a victim of a phishing scam:

1. Learn to identify suspected phishing emails

  • They duplicate the images and branding of a real company.
  • They copy the name of a company or an employee of the company.
  • They include sites that are visually similar or identical to a real business.
  • They promote gifts or threaten the closure of an existing account.

2. Check the source of information from incoming email

Your bank, Information Technology, or cell phone provider will never ask you to send your passwords or personal information by mail. Never respond to these questions, and if you have the slightest doubt, call your bank, IT or your cell phone provider directly for clarification.

3. Never go to your bank’s website by clicking on links in emails

Do not click on hyperlinks or attachments, as it will direct you to a fraudulent website. Type in the URL into your browser or use your own bookmarks or favourites if you want to go faster.

4. Beef up the security of your computer

Common sense and good judgement are as vital as keeping your computer protected with a good antivirus and anti-malware software to block this type of attack. In addition, you should always have the most recent update on your operating system and web browsers.

5. Enter your sensitive data on secure websites only

In order for a site to be ‘safe’, the address must begin with ‘https://’ and your browser should show a closed lock icon.

6. Periodically check your accounts

It never hurts to check your bank accounts periodically to be aware of any irregularities in your online transactions.

7. Phishing doesn’t only pertain to online banking

Most phishing attacks are against banks, but can also use any popular website to steal personal data such as eBay, Facebook, PayPal, etc. Even the university’s e-HR site was targeted in 2017.

8. Phishing is international

Phishing knows no boundaries and can reach you in any language. In general, they are poorly written or translated so this may be another indicator that something is wrong. However, don’t be convinced it’s legitimate if it’s in Afrikaans – phishers are getting clever and adapting.

9. Have the slightest doubt? Do not risk it.

The best way to prevent phishing is to consistently reject any email or news that asks you to provide confidential data. Delete these emails and call your bank to clarify any doubts.

10. Keep up to date and read about the evolution of malware

If you want to keep up to date with the latest malware attacks, recommendations or advice to avoid any danger on the network, subscribe to the Information Technology blog or follow them on Twitter. Put your local computer geek or the IT HelpDesk on the speed dial of your cell phone, and don’t be embarrassed or too proud to ask questions from those who are knowledgeable on this topic.

Keep safe out there.


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