Spear PhishingScam Prevention Tips for Consumers & Merchants

September 11, 2023 | 13 min read

This image was created by artificial intelligence using the following prompts:

Visualize spear phishing - a tactic where scammers impersonate someone via email to scam specific targeted victims. In the style of red and teal. (spear gun added)

Spear Phishing

In a Nutshell

Ever get an email from a friend or coworker that just didn’t feel right, but made it super clear that you needed to click a link or download an attachment? Good chance that was a spear phishing attempt. This article will teach you everything you need to know about spear phishing, including what it is, how you might be targeted, and how to avoid becoming a victim.

What is Spear Phishing? How Do You Avoid Spear Phishing Attacks

Remember those old “Nigerian prince” email scams from the 90s? 

Well, phishing scams have come a long way since those days. Those emails have a quaint, almost comical feel now, compared to some of the sophisticated scams being pulled on consumers and businesses. Scammers can craft some surprisingly convincing messages, making them a challenge to identify and ward off.

Spear phishing shares the same basic objective as all phishing tactics. The attacker wants to trick targets into divulging sensitive data online. However, spear phishing is particularly insidious; these attacks are tailor-made, zeroing in on specific individuals and leveraging detailed information about the target to gain their trust.

So, what can we do to recognize and thwart a spear phishing assault in its tracks? Let's dive in.

What is Spear Phishing?

Spear Phishing

[noun]/spēr • fiSH • iNG/

Spear phishing is a targeted version of phishing. Attackers focus on specific individuals or organizations, typically through misleading emails. The goal is to obtain confidential information, such as login credentials, or plant malware on the victim's device.

Some phishing tactics can be conducted as mass campaigns. The scammer casts a wide net by sending as many messages as possible, hoping to catch a number of “phish.” The rate of success is fairly low, but at least a few people will probably fall for it.

In contrast, spear phishers don’t attack at random. They invest time researching their targets, tailoring their deceptive messages to resemble communications from known and trusted sources. This makes the target much more likely to fall for the trick.

Scammers craft emails designed to trick the recipient into clicking on malicious links or attachments. Once the person falls for the bait, the assailant can capture the legitimate user's details and infiltrate a system without detection.

How Do Spear Phishing Attacks Work?

Spear phishing attacks rely on a blend of research, deception, and social engineering to effectively target specific individuals or organizations. Here's a breakdown of how these attacks generally work:

1 | Target Selection

Spear-phishers begin by selecting specific individuals or entities. This could be anyone from high-level executives (often referred to as “whaling”) to ordinary employees, depending on the intended goal of the attack.

2 | Information Gathering

The attacker engages in detailed research about their targets. They use public sources, such as social media platforms, company websites, and other online tools to gather information about the target's personal and professional life. This can include details like job roles, colleagues, recent events or trips, and more.

3 | Prepping the Hook

Spear-phishers design tailored emails that seem legitimate using the information they've collected. This can be an email that appears to be from a coworker, a known vendor, or even a personal contact. The content of the email is specifically structured to resonate with the target, increasing the chances that the recipient will trust the source and take the desired action.

4 | Include Malicious Payload

These deceptive emails often include a malicious link or attachment. If the link is clicked or the attachment opened, it could lead to the automatic installation of malware, stealing of login credentials, or other harmful outcomes.

5 | Send “Urgent!” or “Important Request”

Spear-phishing emails frequently use tactics to induce a sense of urgency or importance. This might include statements like “urgent invoice to be paid” or “verify your login details due to a security breach.” The goal is to rush the victim into taking action without pausing to verify the authenticity of the request.

6 | Successful Infiltration

The attacker achieves their objective once the target engages with the email content. This could mean entering their credentials on a fake login page, downloading an infected file, or clicking a link that redirects the user to a malicious site. The end goal varies; the scammer is often trying to steal sensitive data, install ransomware, or gain a foothold in an organization's network for further malicious activities.

7 | Lateral Movement

If the goal is broader network infiltration, the attacker can use the initial compromise to move laterally within the network. They can use one compromised account to access other systems, accounts, or data repositories.

What’s the Difference Between Phishing and Spear Phishing?

So, now that we have a better understanding of what spear phishing is and how it works, let’s talk about what it isn’t.

Although spear phishing is a form of phishing, they are not exactly the same. All phishing attacks use deceptive emails to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information, such as passwords or credit card numbers. However, the methods and targets differ with spear phishing.

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Untargeted phishing attacks are usually more generic in nature. They are typically sent to a larger pool of potential victims, hoping that even a small percentage will fall for the bait. Emails or messages may not be tailored to the individual.

In contrast, spear phishing uses a targeted approach. Cybercriminals tailor messages for a specific individual or entity, often using details from sources like social media or corporate websites to make their deception more convincing.

Untargeted PhishingSpear Phishing
TargetA broad range of potential victimsSpecific individuals
ObjectiveGather data like passwords or card numbers from anyone who falls for the scamExtract sensitive details, such as login information
FocusGeneralized email content, often with generic greetingsEmails are meticulously tailored using information specific to the target
PurposeGain broad range of data from multiple victims, though each might be of lower individual valueHigh-value information from a single source to maximize impact of each attack

It's worth noting that the line between phishing and spear phishing can sometimes be blurry, especially as cybercriminals employ more sophisticated tactics. Still, spear phishing emails can be harder to detect because they're more tailored and sophisticated. They might not have the obvious red flags seen in broader phishing campaigns.

What’s a “Whaling” Attack?

Whaling is another type of social engineering attack that uses spear phishing tactics to target individuals. It just goes about the process of target selection a little differently.

Spear phishing targets specific individuals within an organization or group. Whaling, however, means the scammer is specifically targeting people at the top of an organization, like C-level executives or other officers. The goal is to take down a larger target with greater access to sensitive information.

Spear PhishingWhaling
TargetSpecific individualsSenior executives or decision-makers in a company, exclusively
ObjectiveExtract sensitive details, such as login informationObtain highly confidential business secrets that could impact organizational outcomes.
FocusEmails are meticulously tailored using information specific to the targetEmails are intricately personalized for specific high-ranking individuals.
PurposeHigh-value information from a single source to maximize impact of each attackImmediate, high-stakes results are based on the seniority and access of the targeted executive.

Common Examples of Spear Phishing

Spear phishing attacks target both individuals and businesses.

In attacks aimed at individuals, fraudsters impersonate trusted entities like banks or renowned brands like Amazon. They send deceptive messages like “transaction confirmations” or “shipping notices.” In more business-focused attacks, a scammer may target a few employees, mimicking a superior and urging them to transfer funds or disclose sensitive information.

Here are some prevalent spear phishing methods:

Fake Websites

Cybercriminals craft emails linking to counterfeit versions of popular websites. These sites mimic the authentic ones to deceive victims into providing their login details.

Executive Fraud

Attackers hijack an email address known to the victim, such as a company's CEO or HR manager. Posing as this individual, they instruct the employee to perform an urgent task, like transferring money or updating personal details.

Malware

This method involves luring victims to click on a malicious attachment. While often disguised as an invoice or delivery alert, the attachment will actually install malware on the victim’s device.

Smishing

Here, attackers use SMS or voice messages, prompting recipients to click on a link to update account details or passwords. However, the link will instead lead the victim to a malicious site designed to capture the user’s credentials.

Vishing

Here, an anonymous caller leaves a voicemail for the victim. The scammer impersonates a representative from a trusted organization, and prompts a return call to divulge personal details.

Knowing how you might be targeted is a great first step toward preparing an effective fraud prevention strategy. 

Top 5 Spear Phishing Red Flags

Whether you're shopping online, checking emails, or running a small business, it's very important to be aware of the warning signs of spear phishing to avoid becoming a victim. To that end, here are 5 common spear phishing red flags:

Spear Phishing

Unexpected Requests

Think twice when you get an unsolicited message asking for personal or financial details. Remember, most genuine companies or friends won't ask for sensitive info like passwords or bank details via email or text. If you get a request like this, contact the other party directly through another method to verify.
Spear Phishing

Suspicious Email Address

Keep an eye out for sneaky email addresses. They might look almost right, but have a small typo. If you’re expecting an email from “JaneDoe@shopworld.com,” but receive one from “JaneDoe@shopword.com” instead, that's your cue to be cautious.
Spear Phishing

Rush Tactics

Scammers love to rush their targets; it gives you less time to think and potentially realize that the story they’re telling doesn’t add up. Be wary of messages that push you to act fast. For instance, threats of account closures or offers that sound too good and are “ending soon.” Take a moment, breathe, and think before clicking.
Spear Phishing

Strange Links or Attachments

Curiosity killed the cat, right? So, before you click on that tempting link or download that attachment, hover over it to see where it really leads. If something seems off or it's from an unknown source, it's best to avoid it.
Spear Phishing

Odd Language or Spelling Errors

Got an email that just doesn't sound right? Maybe it's full of typos, or it's strangely formal or informal? These can be clues. Even if the message seems to come from someone you know, but the language feels off, it's worth double checking before taking any action prompted in the email.
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10 Tips to Prevent Spear Phishing

Regardless of your level of tech-savviness, it's crucial to be aware and protected. Ultimately, a little caution goes a long way.

If a message feels fishy — or should we say… phishy? — trust your gut and double check the email’s content and source before you click on anything inside. This is not the only tip we can give you to stay safe from spear phishing attempts. Here are ten more to prevent spear phishing:

#1 Stay Educated

Knowledge is power. Keep yourself updated on the latest phishing techniques. Entities like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), as well as various cybersecurity blogs, often share insights on emerging threats and protection strategies.

#2 Verify Unexpected Requests

Any unexpected or unsolicited requests for sensitive data or payments should be a red flag. Before acting, reach out directly to the individual or organization through a separate, established contact method to verify a request's legitimacy.

#3 Inspect Email Addresses Closely

At first glance, a scammer's email may seem legit. However, subtle differences, like “support@amaz0n.com” instead of “support@amazon.com,” can hint at foul play.

#4 Beware of High-Pressure Tactics

Scammers aim to rush you into making mistakes by using urgent-sounding messages, like those claiming your account will be closed unless you act immediately. When you feel pressured, pause and consider the message's authenticity.

#5 Use Email Filters

Many email platforms offer filtering tools that can help detect suspicious messages. Activate these tools and periodically review their settings to ensure maximum protection.

#6 Think Before You Click

Suspicious links are a common trap. Before clicking, hover over the link to see its destination. If it looks unfamiliar or doesn't match the context of the email, it's best not to click.

#7 Keep Software Up to Date

Regular software updates often include patches for security vulnerabilities. Ensure your operating system, browsers, and security tools are updated frequently to benefit from the latest protections.

#8 Activate Multi-Factor Authentication

MFA adds an extra layer of security. It requires not only a password but also a second factor, like a texted code, for example. This ensures that, even if someone knows your password, they can't access your accounts without the additional verification.

#9 Backup Your Data

It's essential to periodically save copies of your important files and data. Whether you use an external drive, cloud service, or both, having backups means you won't lose everything if you fall victim to an attack.

#10 Engage in Cybersecurity Communities

There are many online forums, social media groups, and websites dedicated to cybersecurity. Engaging in these communities can provide firsthand accounts of recent threats and practical advice from peers and experts.

Guarding against spear phishing is an ongoing task in our interconnected world. While the tactics cybercriminals use may evolve, remaining vigilant, informed, and proactive in your digital practices can go a long way in keeping you safe. Remember, always prioritize your digital safety and trust your instincts. 

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FAQs

What is spear phishing?

Spear phishing is a targeted version of phishing. Attackers focus on specific individuals or organizations, typically through misleading emails. The goal is to obtain confidential information, such as login credentials, or plant malware on the victim's device.

What’s the difference between phishing and spear phishing?

Untargeted phishing attacks are usually more generic in nature. They are sent to a larger pool of potential victims, hoping that even a small percentage will fall for the bait. Emails or messages may not be tailored to the individual. In contrast, spear phishing uses a targeted approach; cybercriminals tailor messages for a specific individual or entity. They often use details from sources like social media or corporate websites to make their deception more convincing.

What does spear phishing look like?

Spear phishing attacks target both individuals and businesses. In attacks aimed at individuals, fraudsters impersonate trusted entities like banks or renowned brands like Amazon to send deceptive messages like “transaction confirmations” or “shipping notices.” In more business-focused attacks, on the other hand, hackers may target a few employees, mimicking their superiors urging them to transfer funds or disclose sensitive information.

Why is spear phishing so popular?

Spear phishing is popular because it's highly effective. Leveraging personalized information increases the likelihood of a victim's response, and often bypasses traditional security measures due to its tailored nature.

Is spear phishing illegal?

Yes, spear phishing is illegal. It involves fraud, unauthorized access to personal information, and often leads to other cybercrimes. Violators can face severe penalties under various cybersecurity and fraud laws.

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