What is Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing is a cyberattack method that hackers use to steal sensitive information or install malware on the devices of specific victims. Spear-phishing attacks are highly targeted, hugely effective, and difficult to prevent.

Hackers use spear-phishing attacks in an attempt to steal sensitive data, such as account details or financial information, from their targets. An attack requires significant research, which often involves acquiring personal information about the victim. This is typically done through accessing social media accounts to discover information like their name and email address, who their friends are, their hometown, employer, recent purchase history, and locations they visit. Attackers then disguise themselves as someone their victim trusts, usually a friend or colleague, and attempt to acquire sensitive information via email or instant messaging tools. 

The threat of a spear-phishing attack is highlighted by 88% of organizations around the world experiencing one in 2019, according to Proofpoint’s State of the Phish report. Of those organizations, 55% suffered a successful spear-phishing attack, while 65% of U.S. organizations were victims to spear phishing.

Spear Phishing vs. Phishing

A common spear-phishing definition used throughout the cybersecurity industry is a targeted attack method hackers employ to steal information or compromise the device of a specific user. Spear-phishing messages are addressed directly to the victim to convince them that they are familiar with the sender. The attacks require a lot of thought and planning to achieve the hacker’s goal.

Phishing is a broad term for attacks sent to multiple people in a bid to ensnare as many victims as possible. Phishing attacks involve a spoofed email that purports to be from a genuine sender or organization. The message contains a link that, when recipients click on it, prompts them to enter their personal information and then downloads malware onto their device.

The key difference between these two attack methods is spear-phishing attackers go after a specific individual, whereas phishing takes a blanket approach targeting multiple victims. Spear-phishing attackers methodically target a victim to use them as a way into an organization or for stealing information, while a phishing actor does not bother who their target is. They just want to steal as much information as possible or cause damage.

Spear phishing requires more preparation and time to achieve success than a phishing attack. That is because spear-phishing attackers attempt to obtain vast amounts of personal information about their victims. They want to ensure their emails look as legitimate as possible to increase the chances of fooling their targets. The highly personalized nature of spear-phishing attacks makes it more difficult to identity them than prevent widescale phishing attacks. 

Spear Phishing and Whaling: The Differences and Similarities

Whaling is a form of spear phishing that specifically goes after high-level-executive target victims. It uses the same approach as regular spear phishing, in that the attacker purports to be an individual the recipient knows or trusts. However, whaling often requires even more time and investment in researching and crafting highly targeted messages than spear phishing.

A whaling attack usually targets people with direct access to financial or payroll information or are responsible for making payments. The attacker does the same type of research they would do for a spear-phishing attack to compose a message that appears to be from a trusted colleague. This will likely be the CEO or individual of similar reputation within the organization, but they could also pretend to be a potential supplier. The attacker then sends a message that coerces the victim into sharing financial information or even making payments.

Cyber criminals are willing to put in this time and research as the high-level executives they target are more likely to fall victim to these types of attacks than other employees. This is because executives such as CEOs are often under more pressure, face more time-critical tasks than other employees, and are more likely to underestimate the security risk.

Whaling attacks have also been used to target high-profile individuals, such as politicians and celebrities, which make them vastly lucrative to attackers.

How Does Spear Phishing Work?

The Nature of Spear Phishing

Spear-phishing techniques have improved in sophistication in recent years, making them extremely difficult to detect. Attackers typically target victims on social networking sites who have put their personal information online. A social media profile can easily provide an attacker with key information such as their name, email address, where they live, their friends’ names, and their social posts. These details give an attacker vital details to pose as a person’s friend, colleague, or family member and compose a convincing message that entices the recipient to interact with it.

The Spear Phishing Process

The success rate of spear-phishing attacks is often enhanced by the attacker offering compelling reasons for their victim to urgently part with sensitive information. Victims will often be asked to open an attachment or click a hyperlink that leads to a spoofed website. They will then be asked to provide their username and password for various sites or accounts, PIN numbers, and access codes.

Armed with this information, the attacker can then use that password or test variations of it to attempt to access other websites and steal additional sensitive information from their victim. This can result in hackers gaining access to victims’ bank accounts or even creating new identities using their details. In addition to stealing credentials, spear phishing can also be used to download malware onto victims’ devices.

Attackers deploy various types of spear-phishing techniques, including:

  1. Business email compromise (BEC): Also referred to as CEO fraud, this technique sees hackers spoof the email account of a senior executive. They then use this access to request login details, money, and sensitive information from other employees, such as other executives, senior staff, legal teams, and trusted vendors and partners. A successful BEC attack allows the hacker to gain unrestricted access to a senior executive’s account, which can have massively damaging effects and result in huge financial losses for an organization.
  2. Clone phishing: A clone-phishing attack sees hackers create a near-identical replica of a genuine email message to trick victims into thinking it is legitimate. The message typically comes from an email address that looks real, using a typosquatted domain or fake URL that makes the message appear valid. However, it will include a malicious attachment or hyperlink that leads the victim to a cloned website with a spoofed domain that aims to trick them into giving up sensitive information.
  3. Whaling: Whaling attacks also target high-profile individuals, which can include C-level executives but also celebrities and politicians. Whaling uses a similar approach to spear phishing, in that it is highly targeted, uses social engineering, and email spoofing to access and steal sensitive information.

How to Detect Spear Phishing Attacks

Traditional security tools, such as email security, can help businesses in fighting spear phishing. However, relying on technology alone is not always enough to detect and stop these attacks given the high level of customization. 

This makes employee awareness vital, and all business users need to be constantly aware of the threat of bogus emails. One mistake by an employee could have business-critical consequences, giving malicious actors access to sensitive information that enables them to steal data, commit acts of espionage, hijack computers, or manipulate stock prices depending on the victim they manage to defraud.

While increasing user awareness is critical to reducing the risk of spear phishing, organizations’ security teams have a major part to play. This includes securing business processes to reduce the window of opportunity available for attackers to gain access to sensitive corporate information. 

For example, a business can implement policies that ensure payment cannot be made without multiple steps of authorization, without confirmation over the phone, or without multiple people signing off on them. This will reduce the risk of senior executives or suppliers being impersonated successfully. 

Businesses can also use separate machines for email and online browsing and for invoicing and payment tasks. This could limit the possibility of computers being infected with malware that goes after banking, financial, or payroll information.

Spear Phishing Remediation

The remediation process in the event of a successful spear-phishing attack can be a huge task. Security teams need to verify a suspicious email, then identify who was targeted or who clicked on malicious links, and figure out why they were targeted. This can be a lengthy process, which requires going through proxy logs, generating a list of IP addresses that visited the malicious link, and analyzing data to identify affected users.

The cybersecurity skills gap makes this process even more difficult, with many organizations underprepared for defending themselves against the threat of spear phishing. Users that have clicked on a malicious link and entered sensitive information may not realize anything unusual has occurred, which can lead to attackers retaining access to corporate systems and gaining deeper access through lateral movement.

Remediating in the aftermath of a spear-phishing attack is reliant on deploying automated security solutions that include artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics capabilities. Automation is crucial to reducing the complexity of the data crunching and security monitoring required to discover advanced threats. For example, automating network traffic analysis can provide an organization with a broad view of all the users and devices that have communicated with servers linked to attackers’ domains and infrastructure.

Furthermore, automation enables businesses to identify commonalities between targeted users. This speeds up the threat assessment process, uncovers the hacker’s motive quicker, and enables the businesses to focus on response and remediation.

Spear Phishing Tools

Successful spear-phishing attacks can, in theory, be done by anyone using publicly available information that people have on their Facebook or LinkedIn profile. 

Many spear-phishing attacks use social engineering to craft basic email messages. However, attackers often use phishing kits, which provide the back end of an attack such as a landing page that mirrors a legitimate, well-known website. They use these sites to entice victims into sharing their login details and additional personal information.

Phishing kits are stored on compromised web servers or websites and should be blocked by administrators as soon as they reach the mail server. However, cyber criminals register thousands of new domains, so as soon as one is flagged and taken down, another one takes its place. 

Cyber criminals are also very much aware of basic detection techniques, so they create scripts that help them hide their phishing kit and make their malicious site look genuine.

Spear Phishing Prevention Best Practices

While spear phishing is a highly effective method for cyber criminals to maliciously obtain personal information, steal money, and hack organizations, there are ways for businesses and people alike to defend themselves from these attacks.

For example, tools like antivirus software, malware detection, and spam filters enable businesses to mitigate the threat of spear phishing. Businesses should educate employees and run spear-phishing simulations to help users become more aware of the risks and telltale signs of malicious attacks. They should also have an established process in place for employees to report suspicious emails to their IT and security teams.

Five Tips to Avoid a Spear Phishing Attack

  1. Keep software updated: Wherever possible, it is vital for organizations to ensure they enable automatic updates on software. Doing so protects them from the latest security attacks. It also ensures email clients, security tools, and web browsers have the best possible chance of identifying spear-phishing attacks and minimizing the potential damages. Also, ensure that a data protection program and data loss prevention technology are in place at the organization to protect data theft and unauthorized access.
  2. Minimize password usage: Passwords are a common target of spear-phishing attacks, and it can be devastating if they get into the wrong hands. No password, or iteration of a similar password, should ever be reused on another account. If an attacker gains access to one, then they gain access to all. Password manager tools can be useful for keeping track of various credentials and making codes as strong and complex as possible. But strengthening security to prevent spear-phishing attempts is reliant on removing password usage wherever possible.
  3. Deploy multi-factor authentication: Given the risk of relying on passwords, two-factor or even multi-factor authentication is now crucial for all organizations and online services. This adds an extra layer of security on top of simply logging in to a service with a username and a password. It can include information that a person knows, such as their first school or mother’s maiden name, something they have, such as a unique code sent to an authentication app, or something they are, like their fingerprint. 
  4. Educate your employees: An educated, security-conscious workforce is one of the best ways to prevent spear-phishing attacks. It is important that every employee in an organization knows how to spot sophisticated phishing emails, recognizes unusual hyperlinks and email domains, and will not be fooled by unusual requests to share information. A trusty way of avoiding malicious links being clicked is to advise employees to go directly to websites rather than following any links from any email message. This advice should be practiced on people's personal email links and social media accounts, not just in the work environment.
  5. Use common sense: A big part of spear-phishing avoidance boils down to people using common sense. For example, real businesses never send emails asking people for their usernames and passwords or access codes. People need to question the validity of any email that asks them to share personal information. They should never share financial or payroll information over email or online without speaking to their trusted contact first. They should also be careful about clicking attachments or links in emails. It is likewise important not to make personal information available online and ensure there are privacy settings limiting what people can see.

FAQs

What is Spear Phishing vs. Phishing?

Spear phishing and phishing are two distinct cyberattack methods. Spear phishing is a targeted technique that aims to steal information or place malware on the victim's device, whereas phishing is a broader attack method targeting multiple people. Both techniques involve emails that purport to be from a trusted source to fool recipients into handing over sensitive information or download malware.

What are the Characteristics of Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing is a highly targeted cyberattack method that is highly effective and difficult for businesses to prevent. The method requires significant research on the part of hackers, who need to acquire personal information about their victims. They then use information like their name, email address, friends, hometown, place of work, and geolocation to disguise as a person the victim trusts. 

What Protects Users from Spear Phishing?

Traditional security solutions arm businesses with protection against spear phishing, but attacks are increasingly becoming difficult to detect. User education is crucial to increasing awareness of sophisticated phishing emails and recognizing unusual hyperlinks, email domains, and unusual requests for information-sharing. Businesses must also implement processes that limit access to sensitive information and cause critical damage.

What is Clone Phishing?

Clone phishing is a form of spear-phishing attack. Hackers mimic a genuine email message using an email address that looks valid but contains a malicious attachment or hyperlink that leads to a cloned website with a spoofed domain. The attackers’ goal is for the victim to enter sensitive information on the fake website.

Discover more information about spear phishing and how Fortinet can help your business recognize and prevent modern cyber scams.