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What is spear phishing?

What is spear phishing?

Spear phishing attacks are personalized cyberattacks that target specific individuals and organizations, utilizing highly tailored emails that appear legitimate to the recipient. Spear phishing attacks aim to steal sensitive information or infect devices with malware. 


Differences between spear phishing and phishing

There are significant differences between phishing and spear phishing. Phishing attacks are broad and generic, attempting to trick users into sharing personal data like passwords and credit card details. These attacks are not personalized and rely on quantity rather than quality.

On the other hand, spear phishing attacks are highly targeted and personalized. They involve extensive research on the intended target, making the emails appear more legitimate. Cybercriminals invest significant time and effort into crafting spear phishing attacks, increasing their chances of success.

Related: What is an email phishing attack?


How do spear phishing attacks work?

To successfully execute a spear phishing attack, cybercriminals follow a series of steps:


Defining the goals

Attackers determine the objectives of the attack, whether it's stealing login credentials and credit card information or perpetrating identity theft and financial fraud.


Choosing the targets

Preliminary research is conducted to identify specific individuals or companies that are likely to yield high-value information.


Thorough research

A shortlist of targets is created, and extensive research is carried out to gather as much information about the targets as possible. This includes details about their work, personal life, friends, family, and online shopping habits.


Crafting the attack

Spear phishing emails are created to appear personalized and legitimate using the gathered information and social engineering techniques. These emails often come from individuals or companies the target regularly interacts with and contain information that could be authentic.


Executing the attack

The spear phishing email is sent to the target, typically requesting an immediate response with sensitive details or containing a link to a spoofed website. The recipient may be asked to enter their information on the fraudulent site or download an attachment that installs malware on their device.

In the news: Spear phishing scheme steals $1.7M in NFTs from a Crypto VC  


Signs of spear phishing 

Identifying the signs of a spear phishing scam is necessary in preventing these attacks. Here are some red flags:


Sense of urgency 

Spear phishing emails often create a sense of urgency, pressuring the recipient to take immediate action. They may claim to be from a company manager and require login details for time-sensitive actions.


Emotion-triggering language

The language used in the email is designed to trigger emotional responses like fear or guilt, motivating the recipient to act without question.


Suspicious email addresses

Pay attention to the email address itself. Check for incorrect domains or unusual name formats that may indicate a fraudulent source.


Spelling and grammar mistakes

Emails from reputable organizations, such as banks, typically undergo rigorous proofreading. It could be a sign of a phishing attempt if you notice obvious spelling and grammar errors.


Requests for sensitive information

Beware of emails asking for personal details, passwords, or other sensitive information.


Misleading links

Check the links in the email. Misspelled or incorrectly formatted links or links that don't match the destination address when hovering over them should raise suspicion.


Unsolicited attachments

Be wary of unexpected email attachments, especially those with unusual file names.  

Read also: Protecting healthcare against spear phishing


How to prevent spear phishing attacks

While there is no foolproof method to prevent spear phishing attacks, implementing certain measures can significantly reduce the risk. Here are some expert tips to help prevent spear phishing:

  • Use a virtual private network (VPN): Protect your online activity using a VPN that encrypts your internet connection.
  • Install anti-virus software: Scan all emails for potentially malicious attachments, links, or downloads using reliable anti-virus software.
  • Verify email sources: Learn to verify the authenticity of an email source before taking any action.
  • Be cautious with links: Avoid clicking links in emails. Instead, independently visit the organization's website and navigate to the necessary page.
  • Keep software updated: Ensure all software, including operating systems and applications, is updated with the latest security patches.
  • Limit personal details online: Review your social media profiles and remove any information phishers could use. Set privacy settings to the highest level.
  • Use strong passwords: Employ a password manager, create unique and complex passwords for each account, and change them regularly.
  • Enable multifactor authentication: Whenever possible, enable additional authentication measures such as multifactor or biometric authentication.
  • Verify suspicious emails: If in doubt about the source of an email, reach out to the person or organization to verify its authenticity.
  • Implement security awareness training: Companies should educate employees about the risks of spear phishing attacks and provide training on recognizing and handling suspicious emails.

See also: HIPAA Compliant Email: The Definitive Guide  

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