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What is Spear Phishing and How to Protect Yourself from It?

by Cyberguy | Last Updated | September 1, 2022
CyberSecurity - Consumer|CyberSecurity - SMB|CyberSecurity Insights

Did you know that 91% of successful data breaches started with a spear phishing attack? Spam happens everyday. You get a flood of unsolicited emails, sales offers, ads, and banking notifications. They are mostly harmless if you know how to respond.

But are you confident your network is secure enough to ward off any spear phishing attempt or the deadlier spear phishing attacks?

Spear Phishing Definition

Spear phishing is a highly targeted form of phishing. It’s a more advanced kind of traditional phishing uses convincing language. Spear phishing targets specific persons or organizations through emails created especially to trick the victims.

Before launching a spear phishing attack, spear phishing actors will gather information about a person or business on the Internet, social media, and the dark web to craft a very precise and credible scam. This tactic provides a false sense of security to convince the victim to hand over personal information.

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Signs of Spear Phishing Attacks

Spear phishing attacks are laced with social engineering techniques that make it difficult for targets to discover the red flags. But the warning signs of spear phishing attacks aren’t undetectable if you know where to look. Here are common indications of spear phishing attacks to watch out for:

Spoofed address of the sender of spear phishing emails

It’s important to check if the sender’s email address matches those from earlier messages. Spear phishers frequently spoof or falsify the sender of a spear phishing email. An spear phishing attack may be forming if the email address doesn’t match the address of the actual owner of the email account.

Example: The sender of spear phishing messages that seem to be from your friend Jane is “paula@faceb00k.biz.”

To check: Hover your cursor over the alleged sender’s email address. If it doesn’t match the resulting email address when you hover your cursor, it’s a characteristic of a phishing attack.

Unusual requests and messages

In a spear phishing attack, scammers will often pretend to be a manager or colleague. They then ask their victims to accomplish a task that’s not part of their official responsibilities. They may also remind them to fill out a form they’re unfamiliar with. 

Example: Your manager sends an email asking you to provide him or her with a list of the names of department heads even though you’re not part of the human resources team. Or your “security team” emails you and requests you to download an updated software when this is often handled automatically.

To check: Find out whether the request is sensible and consistent with the business’ internal policies by calling the sender.

Spear Phishing Signs to watch for

Strange language

One of the goals of spear phishing is to install malware. Spear phishing attacks will attempt to fool you into downloading malware by using a known contact of yours. Take heed of the message’s tone and check if it’s consistent with earlier emails from the same sender.

Example: An email from a financial executive of a company you know suddenly uses informal messaging, instead of the usual formal tone.

To check: Contact the sender through phone or other direct means before responding.

Requests for urgent response

Subject lines for spear phishing emails frequently demand immediate response. They either threaten or convey a false sense of urgency to force you to act impulsively.

Example: The subject line reads “Urgent Action Required” to scare you out of your wits and do what the sender is asking you to do.

To check: Don’t panic and don’t click on any link or download an attachment. Check the sender’s email address against previous emails to make sure they match. Look for other signs of a scam, such as the use of strange language or unusual salutation. Better yet, call the sender if he/or she really sent the email.

Suspicious timing

Spear phishing attacks can be detected by the email timestamps. Emails from friends sent during your working hours when they know you can’t respond to them are a warning sign. So are emails from coworkers sent outside of business hours.

Example: Your friend Jane sends you an email that needs urgent response during your office hours. 

To check: Examine the timestamp of each spear phishing email carefully.

Questionable links and attachments

A spear phishing email tricks its victims into clicking on links to malicious websites or downloading infected attachments

Example: An email message asks you to click on everydaycyber.com, a malicious site. The legitimate site is everydaycyber.net.

To check: Hover your cursor over any links in the message to see their URLs. Don’t click on it if it directs you to a malicious website. Check for subtle changes in the domain name and don’t click if there are any. Don’t open mysterious attachments either as they may contain malicious software. Inform your security team of a potential spear phishing attack right away.

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How Spear Phishing Attacks Work

Spear phishing works through the use of:

How Does Spear Phishing Work

Spear phishers use various methods to gain access to the corporate network and collect private information. Here are the common ones:

Use social engineering tactics

Since spear phishing attacks are targeted, the entire process involves sending fraudulent messages but believable to the target. It’s more time-consuming than traditional phishing because a cyber criminal needs to get to know his or targets to earn their trust.

Spear phishing emails specifically target those who post personal information online. While browsing a social networking site, they might browse particular profiles. They can discover a person’s email address, friend list, current location, and any posts concerning recently acquired gadgets and technology.

With all of this knowledge, an attacker could pose as a friend or a familiar figure. He or she then sends targeted phishing attacks with a message that seems genuine but is actually fake.

Identify their targets and their email addresses

In spear phishing, attackers first identify the people in an organization who have access to the data they are after. 

They can obtain an organization’s email addresses in a number of ways. Cybercriminals’ preferred method is using scripts to get email addresses from the major search engines.

You’d be shocked at how many emails can be obtained in this manner. You’d also be surprised at how huge an organization’s spear phishing attack surface is.

Send the emails

Once the spear phishers get the email addresses of the select few persons they are aiming for, they start sending personalized emails. If the recipients haven’t had thorough security awareness training, they could easily be swayed to open the emails.

Spear phishing emails frequently include urgent justifications for why they require sensitive data. They entice their victims to click on a link that leads to a bogus website or open a harmful attachment. They are prompted to enter passwords, account numbers, PINs, and access codes to supposedly resolve account-related concerns.

What is Spear Phishing - Example email

Impersonating a friend, an attacker may ask for usernames and passwords of your social media accounts. In reality, the attackers will use your personal details to access your credit card information, bank accounts, or Social Security number.

Harvest information

Let’s suppose a victim clicked on the link and the keylogger was successfully installed on their computer by cybercriminals. The next step is to watch for the login credentials in the hourly burst of keyboard data. The keylogger automatically sends the information to the spear phisher’s server. 

When they log into their workstation, the scammers then get the hashes of every network password, crack them, bypass security admin, and gain administrator access to the whole network.

Spear Phishing vs. Phishing

While regular phishing and spear phishing have some similarities, they also differ significantly in some key ways. Both successfully deceive their intended victims into disclosing private information, but spear phishing requires the attacker to put out far more effort.

Another difference is that spear phishing exploits produce bigger payouts than do phishing attacks. 

In phishing, campaigns have no specific targets. Attackers send random emails containing malicious links or attachments to an email contact list.

Attackers are aware that not all messages will be delivered. Some emails will be blocked by security filters on the recipient’s email server. When recipients recognize a phishing attempt, they might delete those messages. 

Specific targets are not required because the attackers are aware that some of the receivers would fall victim. They know that there will be a group of vulnerable users because they are either ignorant, or too busy or lazy to see the signs.

Spear Phishing vs Phishing

In spear phishing, scammers use a more personalized approach. They typically target highly privileged users within a business, including C-level executives, human resources workers, and accountants.

The attackers need much more research and time to be able to create what messages will work. To be more effective, spear phishing uses a psychological approach. 

How to Protect Yourself from Spear Phishing

The best defense is a strong offense. While there’s no foolproof tool that can stop spear phishing attacks and prevent every cybersecurity incident, having a solid security plan is a great place to start. 

Methods to avoid being spear phished

Here are effective ways to protect yourself from spear phishing:

1. Use email security software

Your best hope for defeating spear phishing efforts is to invest in a reliable email security program. This protective software assists in preventing the compromise of your human layer and avoiding successful spear phishing attacks. Choose one that can spot common attack indicators in emails and other cloud applications. This way, you can block threats before they can do any damage.

2. Enforce tight password management practices

Don’t use the same password or password variations for all of your accounts. Use unique, long, and strong passwords that include random phrases, numbers, letters, and symbols.

Security systems are as strong as the passwords people use. Consider the following password best practices:

3. Enforce multi factor authentication (MFA)

Enabling multi factor authentication in email accounts makes them much more secure and difficult to hack. It could seem inconvenient, like when you have to run for your cell phone to get your one-time passcode. However, multi factor authentication increases the security of your accounts and reduces the possibility that scammers would possess all the information they need to breach an account.

Even if a hacker has your username and passwords, they will be thwarted if they lack the third or fourth verification stages. 

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4. Encrypt all sensitive corporate data

Encrypting files is a good way to shield private company data from prying eyes. The files you transfer to your systems, cloud environments, business partners, and remote places will be safer with encryption. It makes it more difficult for outsiders to decrypt your data even if they get their hands on it.

5. Do regular backups and install the latest security patches

The significance of installing security patches and performing routine backups cannot be overstated. If there are no data backups to restore, it is impossible to recover your data after a breach. As new versions are released by software developers, it’s good security practice to keep your security systems up to date.

6. Provide continuous security awareness training

It takes time to educate staff members about security precautions. Employee awareness training must be a continuous activity due to the rapid evolution of cybersecurity threats.

Consider including cybersecurity knowledge in new employee orientation procedures and reference materials. To keep your sensitive data and systems secure, regularly conduct refresher training for all staff members, including management.

Our Final Thoughts

Data breaches caused by spear phishing activities are becoming more rampant. Watch out for the signs of this threat, such as those we shared above. In the end, the best defense against spear phishing is a vigilant mindset.

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