What is spear phishing?
Spear Phishing is a common method used by online hackers to gain unauthorized access to company resources or personal information. The most common method of a phishing attack is email, but it can occur by phone or by person.
You would receive an email or a text with clickbait, and once you open the file, the hacker can access all your files.
Cyber attackers have modified their tricks and no longer send items with shady links, poor grammar, or poor graphics. They have made improvements to make their messages to seem legit to fool you.
Spear phishing is not random. The perpetrators do their research first through social engineering to get personalized information about you.
For instance, find your name or your hometown, your bank, or your place of employment or any information easily accessed via social media profiles and postings. Such details will bait anyone into opening the email.
However, note that you can also be a target because of the position you hold at your job. You can be their key into the target computer systems. If for instance, you are a secretary, you have access to meetings, agendas, service schedules, and other critical intellectual information. If you are in finance, you have access to all the company’s financial data.
So anyone can be the target of a spear-phishing attack, whether they accidentally click on an unsolicited survey response or got tricked by a fake alert from their bank.
Note that everyone has value; all they have to do is target the right personnel. Be vigilant on how to prevent spear phishing.
Spear Phishing Statistics
Due to the prevalence, effectiveness, and smart design of many spear-phishing campaigns, most people are unable to spot phishing schemes.
It is estimated that 95% of enterprise network hacks involved spear-phishing with over 40% of people unable to identify a phishing attempt.
Somewhere around 30% of all phishing emails in the U.S. are opened because they appear to be real and contain valid requests from individuals that the recipient presumes they can trust.
It’s usually a request made by a manager or someone in a higher position in the company compelling the recipient to reply because they feel it is their job to do so.
Common Types of Phishing Attacks & how to spot them
Spear Phishing Attacks
Hackers use this method to target particular businesses. They go beyond sending out mass emails or blanketing random sites with ads. They tailor their efforts toward people who work in an industry they find valuable.
Phone and Text Phishing
Not all attacks come over the internet. Hackers may leave voice mails or text messages warning you about an impending danger. They mention sensitive information like your bank account, or company you’ve hired services from or your home security.
They use the text messages to send you corrupted links that will direct you to a phishing website. Once you get there, they will trick you into thinking it’s the actual site. They masked the address bar with an image of the actual URL to fool you
Email remains a popular choice for most hackers. They mimic a famous brand or institution, reaching out to you to help you resolve an issue. The official-looking communication asks you to confirm a password or other account information.
More sophisticated deceptive phishing emails make the sender address match those of people or businesses you communicate with regularly. They contain malicious attachments or links designed to deliver malware to your device.
A whaling attack is a spear-phishing attack against a high-value target. This is usually a C-level employee, like a Chief Executive or Chief Financial Officer. In this attack, the hacker attempts to manipulate the target. The goal might be high-value money transfers or trade secrets.
The term whaling refers to the high-level executives. Factors like human error and lousy advice play a big part in the success of these types of attacks.
Cloning involves mimicking a trusted site a user frequents. People receive emails warning them about an issue with their account. Hackers create an entire malicious website that looks like the one the user logs into regularly. The terrorists hope to fool users into providing them with personal credentials.
Many users of Reddit fell victim to clone phishing. A clone of the site popped up with the apparent intent of tricking people into thinking they were logging into the regular Reddit site.
Social media is the easiest way to gather information on people. This is because most people post details of their lives, pin their location, and add photos on their handles. Hackers send a friend request, then send you an invitation to respond to a quiz about your personal information. For instance, the name of your pets or the street you grew up in.
The information you give out may seem like nothing. You might reference where you live and places you like to visit. Hackers need only a small bit of data to gain more information about you. That is enough to figure out your passwords and hack your accounts.
Cyber attackers create fake phishing websites designed to steal your details. For instance, people searching for a site that lets them update a passport get fooled by a login page that appears legitimate. The credentials they enter end up being used to compromise other personal accounts.
Scammers also lure visitors to these sites by creating fake ads on sites like Google or Craigslist. Bitcoin users fooled by fake ads on Google have been frequent victims of theft in recent months. The problem got so bad that Facebook recently banned all ads related to cryptocurrencies from their site.
False or Fake Advertisements
Websites make a significant amount of revenue by designing ads that get your attention. Hackers use this to their advantage by embedding these ads with malware. Clicking on the ads allows the software to embed itself in your system and go to work.
How to spot a spear-phishing scam
- Any time you read ‘wire money,’ stop. It is very likely a scam.
- Alarming content is full of warnings and potential consequences. Hackers can send messages that cause alarm. For instance, claiming your accounts is hacked, is expiring, or risk losing urgent benefits.
- Email address. The hacker must receive the reply message, so the “From” or “Reply to:” field will not be a real one. Watch for the spelling of the domain name, as sometimes the differences are subtle.
- Bad grammar and excessive exclamation points. Professional copywriters go to great lengths to create emails with well-tested content, subject line, call-to-action, etc. It is very likely that any emails that contain poor grammar, punctuation, or shows an illogical flow of content. It is likely written by inexperienced scammers and is fraudulent.
- An offer of substantial financial rewards. This pattern includes emails claiming that you have won a lottery. Even when you never purchase one, the offer of a large cash discount on something that you never purchased, or large prize money in a contest that you never enrolled for and so on. The actual intention is usually to direct you to a site where the scammers can get your personal or financial information.
- Lack of ‘normal’ look and feel of the internal message (not a reply in a thread, no signature, etc.)
How to prevent spear phishing
There are tones of information online in regards to how to prevent spear phishing. Educate yourself about what to look for and how to avoid being tricked. If you have a company of business, train your employees too.
Employees often cannot comprehend how their actions could hurt the entire company. Bring it down from an abstract and show how it affects them. Demonstrate how the damage done by malicious software impacts their job.
It will save you a lot in the future. Don’t wait until you are a victim of hackers to learn more about it.
Use common sense
Look out for the slightest indicators that an email is fake. For instance, check out for a misspelled company name or link text that doesn’t match the link URL. Avoid clicking links and attachments in emails. Links can lead to websites containing malware, spammy advertisements, and trackers.
Similarly, an attachment may contain viruses or malware and should never be opened unless you’re sure of the source. If you do land on a website, check for HTTPS in your browser’s address bar. Things like lack of an about page, outdated copyrights, or no contact information can be giveaways. These should be the basics when you learn about how to prevent spear phishing.
Don’t send personal information
This should fall under common sense, but it’s worth the extra emphasis. Businesses will rarely ask you to provide personal information over email, phone, or text message. Verify such requests using contact information from the actual company website. Don’t just assume that it’s legit. Caution is the best method on how to prevent phishing.
As with any scam, one of the top ways to avoid it is to become aware of how the fraud takes place. Sharing the information with your friends, family, and colleagues can help prevent them from becoming victims too.
Use strong passwords and a password manager
If you suspect you may have been a victim of a phishing attempt or you are notified as such, then you should change your password immediately. Use a strong password and avoid using cliché passwords like your birthdays or pets name or something someone can easily guess.
Use password managers if you may forget your passwords. These password tools can also help you detect a phishing site by default. Password managers work by auto-filling your information in known sites so that they won’t work on unknown (including fake) domains. This isn’t something that should be relied upon, but it can act as a backup.
Avoid posting personal information online
Avoid sharing personal information such as a personal phone number. Every individual should avoid ever posting their phone number on their social media platform and avoid inputting their phone number with an unknown (and even most known) websites and mobile applications.
Phone numbers are keys to identifying a person and their complete financial background as a social security number. With techniques like SIM swapping and phishing scams, a person can essentially take over all of a person’s financial accounts.
Establish a System to Report Threats
Inform employees on what to do if they encounter a fraudulent email. They should report even if they are unsure if the message is a threat. They should also beware random text messages.
Analyze Web Traffic
Attackers love to find vulnerable points when users access personal accounts on their work computers. Check any access attempts to non-company websites or email servers. It does no good to have top-level security on a work email account, only to have someone download malware by clicking on a Facebook ad.
Take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI)
Find a solution on how to prevent spear phishing. Find a system that detects and blocks spear phishing attacks, including company and brand impersonation that may not include malicious links or attachments. Machine learning tools can analyze communication patterns in an organization and spot any anomalies that may be signs of an attack.
Don’t rely solely on traditional security
Traditional email security that uses blacklists for spear phishing and brand impersonation detect may not protect against zero-day links found in many attacks. Employ advanced email security filter tools that can flag out potential phishing attempts.
Filtering can be expensive or cheap, depending on the level you choose. For a basic and inexpensive level, you can set web browser filters and will control what you can and cannot access. You can set company-wide filters, so your employees aren’t able to access malicious sites.
Conduct proactive investigations
Because spear phishing attacks are so personalized, employees may not always recognize or report them. Companies should conduct regular searches to detect emails with content known to be shared among hackers, including subject lines related to password changes.
There is no way to prevent perpetrators from attempting phishing scams, but businesses and consumers can defend against them. But you can learn how to prevent spear phishing. The best way to avoid falling victim is to stay aware at all time. Keep information confidential, never trust outside sources, and contact an experienced and professional security solutions team to ensure business assets are likewise protected.