What Is Spear Phishing Attack?

Spear phishing is an email or electronic communications scam targeted towards a specific individual, organization or business. Cybercriminals may also intend to install malware on a targeted user’s computer.

Defining Spear Phishing

Spear phishing is an email spoofing attack that targets a specific organization or individual, seeking unauthorized access to sensitive information. Spear phishing attempts are not typically initiated by random hackers. However, they are more likely to be conducted by perpetrators out for financial gain, trade secrets or military information.

As with emails used in regular phishing attacks, spear phishing messages appear to come from a trusted source. Phishing messages usually appear to come from a large and well-known company or website. Especially those with a broad membership base. For instance, Google or PayPal. In the case of spear phishing, however, the apparent source of the email is likely to be an individual within the recipient’s own company. Generally, someone in a position of authority. Or from someone the target knows personally.

How Spear Phishing Works

An email arrives, apparently from a trustworthy source, but instead it leads the unknowing recipient to a bogus website full of malware. These emails often use clever tactics to get victims’ attention.

Many times, government-sponsored hackers and hacktivists are behind these attacks. Cybercriminals do the same with the intention to resell confidential data to governments and private companies. These cybercriminals employ individually designed approaches and social engineering techniques to effectively personalize messages and websites. As a result, even high-ranking targets within organizations, like top executives, can find themselves opening emails they thought were safe. That slip-up enables cybercriminals to steal the data they need in order to attack their networks.

Spear Phishing Characteristics

Spoofed sender’s email address. The email address looks like it is from a trusted individual and/or domain. But closer inspection reveals a typographical error or the exchange of one alphanumeric character for another. That closely resembles it. Such as the letter “I” replaced with the number one.
A sense of urgency, particularly as it relates to performing a task that goes against company policy. Attackers evoke a sense of urgency to exploit the recipient’s desire to do good or to simply be helpful.

For example, posing as the target’s direct supervisor, an attacker may ask for the username and password for an internal application so that they can fulfill a critical request from upper management in a timely manner, rather than wait for IT to reset their password.

Poor grammar, typographical errors or unlikely language within the body of the message. The body of the email does not sound like other messages from the supposed sender. Perhaps the tone is too informal or the jargon is incorrect for the recipient’s geographic location or industry.

How to Protect Yourself from Spear Phishing

Traditional security often does not stop these attacks because they are so cleverly customized. As a result, they are becoming more difficult to detect. One employee mistake can have serious consequences for businesses, governments and even nonprofit organizations. With stolen data, fraudsters can reveal commercially sensitive information, manipulate stock prices or commit various acts of espionage.

To fight spear phishing scams, employees need to be aware of the threats, such as the possibility of bogus emails landing in their inbox. Besides education, technology that focuses on email security is necessary.

Programmers working on computer program

Wrapping Up

Spear-phishing is a targeted attempt to steal sensitive information such as account credentials or financial information from a specific victim, often for malicious reasons.

The attackers then disguise themselves as a trustworthy friend or entity to acquire sensitive information, typically through email or other online messaging. This is the most successful form of acquiring confidential information on the internet, accounting for 91% of attacks.

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