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Top 5 Reasons Why Educational Institutions Are Soft Targets for Phishing And Malware Attacks and 7 Ways to Prevent Them

Educational institutions are always considered soft targets for cyber attacks because they contain massive volumes of data, and many of them are often not adequately secure. Here is a look at their vulnerabilities and ways to prevent cyber attacks from compromising their information assets.

Despite the financial and manufacturing sectors being lucrative targets for cyberattacks due to their profitability, they are fortified by sophisticated cybersecurity measures, making them less accessible to threat actors. Conversely, the health and education sectors, rich with confidential client and customer data, are often viewed as more vulnerable targets due to comparatively less robust security practices. This vulnerability is particularly evident in higher education institutions, which often face a higher number of cyber incidents. Here we explore why educational institutions are soft targets for cyber threats like phishing and malware and how they can enhance their enterprise network systems’ confidentiality, integrity, and availability to better defend against these attacks.

Critical Threats Facing Educational Institutions in 2023

Educational institutions have a massive amount of data in their databases. Besides, many do not employ the most robust cybersecurity strategies to protect their information assets due to budgetary constraints and other reasons. In addition, the pandemic forced almost all institutions to conduct their classes online, and most were ill-equipped to do so. Thus, malicious actors got the opportunity to exploit their digital vulnerabilities and launch cyber attacks on their network systems. Here are some critical cyber threats facing the educational sector in 2023.

  1. Phishing: Statistically, educational institutions have the maximum number of social media users, making it attractive for malicious actors to launch social engineering attacks through phishing. The Verizon Report underscores phishing as the most critical threat to educational institutions.
  2.  Malware/ Ransomware: The FBI has stated in its alert that ransomware activity continues to plague the educational sector, including many colleges and K12 schools in the US.
  3.  Data Breaches: Since educational institutions contain significant volumes of confidential data but do not necessarily have robust cybersecurity measures, data breaches are a critical threat. IBM’s DBIR 2022 estimates the cost of a data breach in the educational sector to be around $3.86 million.
  4. Unpatched and outdated software: The Verizon Report shows that unpatched and outdated software systems rank amongst the primary causes of cyber attacks on educational institution information network systems.
  5. Cyberbullying: With almost every student having access to smartphones and the internet, instances of cyberbullying are on the rise. The Cyberbullying Research Center report states that about 37% of students have experienced cyberbullying.

Phishing and Malware Attacks Against Educational Institutions: Statistics

As evident from above, educational institutions are popular soft targets for malicious actors. The following statistics show a snapshot of the cyberattack landscape of the educational sector.

  • CISCO 2021 Report states that the educational sector is the second-highest targeted sector for phishing and malware attacks after financial institutions.
  • According to Emsisoft’s year-end report, 1981 schools were hit by ransomware attacks in 2022, almost double the number from 2021.
  • Educational institutions witnessed a steep increase of 75% in cyber attacks in 2022.

Why Are Educational Institutions a Soft Target For Phishing And Malware Attacks?

Cyber threat actors relish uncertainties, and the pandemic presented them with many on a platter, especially from the education sector, because a significant part of education switched to online, and most institutions were ill-equipped to handle the change. Moreover, educational institutions have been a perennial soft target for phishing and malware attacks. Here are some reasons for it.

Large volumes of research and confidential data

Educational institutions contain massive volumes of data, including student credentials, financial information, valuable intellectual property, and vast research data. Therefore, threat actors can access highly credible information if they infiltrate the educational institution’s information network systems, which makes schools, colleges, universities, and research centers lucrative targets for malicious actors.

Multiple people accessing educational network information systems

University campuses usually offer accessible Wi-Fi facilities to their students and users. Threat actors can use such networks and compromise Wi-Fi connections to launch ‘evil-twin’ attacks to exfiltrate confidential information from unsuspecting and insecure users. Since multiple people access the institution’s information network systems, it can be challenging to identify such attacks.

Perimeter focused environment

Usually, educational institutions focus on establishing a security perimeter to prevent malicious actors from accessing their networks. In the process, they concentrate less on insider threats and ignore the possibility that someone might have already accessed their information network system and already be creating mischief. Unfortunately, this myopic approach makes educational institutions vulnerable to advanced malicious actors.

Comparatively fewer security measures

Though university campuses and schools aim to secure their information network systems and prevent malware and phishing attacks, many have less stringent security measures, like in the financial and other business sectors, due to budgetary constraints and other reasons. Employing comparatively fewer security safeguards puts these institutions at a higher risk of a cyber attack.

Supposedly less awareness among users

While educational institutions are highly vulnerable, all of them do not usually employ top-level cybersecurity professionals to oversee their security strategies. As a result, there needs to be more awareness among their employees and vendors who access their systems. Besides, the steady stream of fresh students annually flowing into these institutions results in more users with lower awareness levels accessing various data. As a result, it widens the scope of the cyber attack vector for malicious actors to launch phishing and malware attacks.

Steps Educational Institutions Can Take to Prevent Malicious Attacks

As educational institutions are highly vulnerable to cyber attacks, securing their cybersecurity infrastructure becomes a top priority. The education sector can employ the following strategies to prevent malicious attacks and protect its information assets from data breaches and ransomware incidents.

Strengthen the Wi-Fi security using WPA3 connections and compatible devices

Every internet device must be WPA3 compliant today, as cybersecurity professionals globally consider this connection standard the most secure. Furthermore, since educational institutions usually offer free Wi-Fi to their students, employees, and other users within the campus, it becomes imperative to strengthen the Wi-Fi connections by using WPA3 protocols.

Improve incident detection and response, and data monitoring systems.

Traditionally, human error is a primary vulnerability that educational institutions and other organizations encounter. Therefore, they should improve their network and data monitoring systems to prevent malicious activities. It can help quarantine the affected assets if identified on time. Secondly, there should be an increased focus on incident response strategies because time is crucial when an incident takes place. The longer the delay in responding to an incident, the greater the damage.

Keep network systems and devices up-to-date with vulnerability scanning and effective patch management.

Cyber attackers keep looking for new vulnerabilities and innovative ways to infiltrate information network systems. Therefore, educational institutions should ensure efficient vulnerability scanning and deploy appropriate patch management strategies to address cyber threats. The standard protective control measures include application firewalls, anti-virus software, intrusion prevention systems (IPS), data loss prevention (DLP), URL filtering, and email security.

Ensure effective IAM and PAM systems are in place.

Insider threats are challenging to detect because malicious actors, in that case, are people who know the systems and their vulnerabilities better than external attackers. Therefore, educational institutions should have proper network segmentation to prevent lateral and horizontal movement. In addition, they should employ effective IAM (Identity and Access Management) and PAM (Privileged Access Management) systems to ensure that authorized users get only activity-based access to the information network system following principles like ‘least privilege’ and ‘need to know.’

Improve user education and ensure proper user control measures.

Proper user education can help stop cyberattacks before they occur. Therefore, every educational institution should disseminate quality information on cyber hygiene and ensure suitable user control measures. For example, maintaining password hygiene can prevent data breaches and IoT attacks. In addition, proper cyber hygiene can help users identify phishing and social engineering attacks before they occur.

Hiring the right managed security service provider (MSSP) and advisors.

While encouraging users to maintain self-cyber hygiene is critical, educational institutions should also focus on hiring qualified managed security service providers (MSSPs) and advisors. It helps the system to remain updated with the latest and most robust security measures to prevent cyber attacks. In addition, quality cybersecurity staff ensure excellent backup support during emergencies.

Leverage specialized services.

Traditional anti-phishing software and tools can help deal with regular attacks. However, malicious actors employ advanced AI-based techniques to launch innovative attacks, prompting educational institutions to use specific AI-based tools for anti-phishing and state-of-the-art endpoint security. Specialized vendors provide these services that help prevent phishing and malware attacks.

Parting Thoughts

Cyber threat actors often target the path of least resistance when attempting to breach information network systems. Regrettably, educational institutions frequently fall into this category due to often insufficient security measures and IT staffing to safeguard their data assets. This vulnerability makes these institutions appealing targets for cyber attackers. With these limitations in mind, it is crucial for these establishments to utilize cutting-edge AI-enabled anti-phishing tools and implement advanced cybersecurity strategies to safeguard user credentials and essential data assets.

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  2. Morgan, C. Why is the Education Sector a Target for Cyberattacks? Enterprise Network Security Blog from IS Decisions.
  3. Critical Insight. (n.d.). Top 10 cybersecurity priorities for schools. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from
  4. Muravyova, E., Utkin, A., & Valiullin, B. (2020, November). Determining the vulnerability of educational institutions in terms of the requirements of the program “My city to prepare.” Retrieved February 19, 2023, from
  5. Jalbout, M. (2019, July 17). Educating the most vulnerable: Universities’ greatest impact. Brookings.
  6. Taylor, H. (2019, September 26). Ransomware and phishing issues in educational institutions. Avertium. (2022, June 7). The top 5 cyber threats within the education sector. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2023, from

Brad Hudson

Cybersecurity Practice Leader

About Columbia Advisory Group

Founded in Dallas in 2012, Columbia Advisory Group LLC (CAG) is an established IT consulting firm renowned for delivering cost-effective, meaningful, and practical IT solutions that solve complex business problems. Our seasoned teams offer comprehensive insight across diverse regulatory and economic environments, providing unbiased, straightforward analysis and recommendations. We pride ourselves on our deep understanding of IT while remaining software and hardware-agnostic. Regardless of your organization’s growth trajectory or economic landscape, we at CAG are adept at adapting to your unique needs and complexity, offering tailored solutions to drive your success.

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