Phishing is the most common form of social engineering used by cybercriminals to steal sensitive information from their targets. Unlike other phishing attacks, spear phishing targets specific individuals within an organization. The most effective strategy to protect your organization from spear phishing attacks is to thoroughly understand:
- What spear phishing attacks are, based on their characteristics
- How spear phishing attacks differ from other types of phishing
- How to identify and prevent spear phishing attacks early-on
Equipped with a robust set of spear phishing tools, your organization will be well-positioned to optimize its cyber defenses against spear phishing attacks.
What Is Spear Phishing in Cyber Security?
Cybercriminals leverage targeted spear phishing attacks to find targets that may be susceptible to exploitable security vulnerabilities. For example, a cybercriminal may study the patterns or behaviors of individuals at a target organization to identify the types of websites they visit or the emails to which they typically respond. Based on the potentially exploitable vulnerabilities identified, the cybercriminal will launch targeted phishing attacks on particular individuals to gain unauthorized access to their accounts and, by extension, the organization’s overall network.
Examples of Spear Phishing
Spear phishing emails are some of the most common examples of spear phishing. Email spear phishing is often orchestrated to be as legitimate as possible, taking unique details only the target would know and incorporating them into an email that communicates a sense of urgency.
For an unsuspecting employee, a well-crafted spear phishing email can result in either panic or excitement, depending on the types of requests in the message.
For instance, an employee who just joined a company may receive a fake email containing the name of the company’s CEO in the email subject, along with an urgent message asking the employee to click a link to a “welcome gift card.” By clicking on the link, the employee may be asked to fill in sensitive account credentials. These credentials will then provide unauthorized access to the organization’s networks.
Another example of spear phishing is an email asking employees to urgently provide their user account information for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win prizes or gifts based on their online purchase activity.
Most examples of spear phishing attacks follow certain characteristics, which can be used to identify the threats as they unfold.
Characteristics Of Spear Phishing
Spear phishing attacks are designed to exploit human psychology and can be identified based on the sense of urgency, fear, or outright emotional response they try to elicit from targets. Additionally, many spear phishing attacks ask employees to do something outside the reasonable bounds of their job descriptions or company policy.
Beyond their urgent messaging, here are some characteristics of spear phishing attacks:
- Unusual subject lines or body text, often with incorrect spelling or grammar
- Illegitimate looking sender addresses, often with non-existent domains
- Emails containing potentially malicious links with messaging to click on them
Even with an awareness of the above characteristics, it can still remain challenging for targets to identify spear phishing attacks. However, continuous security awareness training will help users become more sensitive to the trends and patterns of spear phishing.
Spear Phishing vs Phishing
The main difference between phishing and spear phishing is the level of user-targeting employed. Phishing broadly targets users in an organization, whereas spear phishing targets specific types of users based on the cybercriminal’s intelligence gathering. In a sense, phishing attacks are randomly deployed across several targets, with the cybercriminal hoping that some users will fall prey to the attack. However, spear phishing is more specific: the cybercriminal leverages targeted information to deploy the attack, increasing its chances of success.
Phishing as a broader category also extends beyond emails and encompasses other types of social engineering attacks, such as:
- Voice phishing or vishing, where cybercriminals attempt to elicit sensitive information from targets over spam phone calls.
- Text phishing or smishing, where cybercriminals pretext targets to divulging sensitive information or clicking on malicious links sent through text messages.
In terms of similarities, phishing and spear phishing attacks use a similar sense of urgency, are sent from illegitimate-looking email addresses, and often have similar types of wording or grammatical patterns.
Spear Phishing vs. Whaling
Although spear phishing attacks target specific users within an organization, whaling attacks take it a notch higher by targeting higher-level employees such as those holding senior leadership positions (e.g., C-suite executives, team managers, etc.).
If successful, whaling attacks can have significant security consequences for several reasons:
- Employees in senior leadership positions often have access to highly sensitive IT assets (e.g., networks, server rooms) and data within your infrastructure, which, if compromised, can disrupt business operations.
- Partnerships with third-party organizations may also be affected if cybercriminals gain access to confidential information such as intellectual property.
- Cybercriminals can launch advanced persistent threats more readily if they have administrator access to sensitive components of your IT infrastructure.
However, phishing and spear phishing attacks use a similar sense of urgency, are sent from illegitimate-looking email addresses, and often have common wording or grammatical patterns.
How To Prevent Spear Phishing
A training campaign to increase your employees’ awareness of spear phishing is the best way to prevent spear phishing attacks. The broader range of spear phishing protections includes:
- Implementing mandatory security training on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis to increase awareness about spear phishing and other types of social engineering attacks
- Incorporating mock spear phishing scenarios into security awareness training sessions to help employees broaden their understanding of spear phishing attacks
- Instituting security policies that prevent employees from accessing public, unsecured networks
- Leveraging antivirus and anti-malware tools to reduce external, potentially malicious traffic from infiltrating your organization’s networks
- Implementing industry-standard access controls such as:
- Multi-factor authentication (MFA) for access to sensitive data environments
- Stringent password use policies requiring frequent password changes
The appropriate level of spear phishing protection you implement in your organization will depend on a range of factors ranging from the types of phishing threats you have experienced and the current security awareness of your employees.
The most effective way to optimize spear phishing protection is to work with a security awareness training specialist who can advise on appropriate mitigatory security controls.
How RSI Security Can Help You Prevent Spear Phishing
With a wide range of experience conducting security awareness training for multiple organizations, RSI Security will help you prevent spear phishing attacks from disrupting your business operations. At RSI Security, we understand that cybersecurity awareness training is not a one-time process. Security threats are consistently evolving and today’s defenses may not work against tomorrow’s threats. Achieving robust cybersecurity protection depends on the full extent of participation across stakeholders within your organization, especially employees.
We offer a cybersecurity training program and other services to mitigate spear phishing:
- Automated security awareness and training campaigns ensure your employees remain up-to-date with measures to defend against common spear phishing threats.
- Social engineering security tests and alerts ensure your system does not miss any potential phishing threats.
- Monthly email exposure checks help identify vulnerabilities in email applications.
- Penetration testing helps identify human phishing vulnerabilities.
Security awareness training has a high cybersecurity ROI for any organization. Your employees will be well-positioned to identify and appropriately respond to various social engineering threats long before they can materialize into attacks.
Contact RSI Security today to learn more and get started optimizing your security posture.