What is a Spear Phishing Attack?
Everyone who uses the internet regularly has heard of phishing attacks. Most of them are quite unsophisticated. But not all phishing attacks are the same. Spear phishing attacks can be significantly more advanced and dangerous.
So, what is a spear phishing attack?
Summary: A spear phishing attack is a targeted phishing attack on individuals and organizations carried out via email or phone with the goal of stealing confidential information, like passwords and authentication codes, or infecting a specific device with malware. Spear phishing attacks differentiate themselves from other phishing attacks through the extensive research done by the attacker to learn more about the target.
How Does a Spear Phishing Attack Work?
A spear phishing attack can be broken down into six distinct stages.
While some cybercriminals try to contact their targets over the phone, doing it via email is much easier. This method also allows the attacker to infect a target’s device or network with malware if they want to do more than get some credentials.
During the initial stage, an attack will likely use a shotgun approach to find viable email addresses from individuals or employees of an organization. Hackers might attempt to send emails to see who immediately responds. This can give them a better idea of vulnerable links in the organization’s armor.
From there, the phishing attack becomes a spear phishing attack. Cybercriminals will determine who can gain access to the type of data they need. Those people will become the focus of their attacks.
In this stage, email harvesting scripts are often used to collect email addresses from the top search engines.
Overcoming Security Protocols
Another important part of any spear phishing attempt revolves around bypassing antivirus and firewall security protocols. These could potentially prevent phishing emails from reaching the inbox of the targets.
Savvy hackers know how to circumvent various security software. The only big challenge is figuring out what software their targets use.
This can be tricky if the target of the attack isn’t a public person, but someone who keeps to themselves. Targeting employees and work email addresses can be easier. Despite companies using more security than individuals do on their personal devices, job listings can give away important information.
For example, a company looking for IT specialists with experience in specific antivirus or firewall software makes it obvious what it uses to secure its network and device. This may allow hackers to target specific vulnerabilities and increase their chances of passing through the security filters.
A spear phishing attack that causes someone to download malware or give out some information is only half successful. A truly successful attack requires the data to reach the hacker.
Egress planning is another crucial stage of any spear phishing attack. This is where hackers try to create encrypted tunnels that will allow the information to reach them without being detected as a traffic anomaly or security breach.
The biggest difference between a regular phishing attack and spear phishing emails is the accuracy with which it can be executed and the higher chance of success.
Hackers use social engineering techniques to research their targets thoroughly and uncover a lot of personal information. Once they learn about your personal life, they know how to push your buttons.
Social engineering tactics help build trust and lower the target’s defenses. It makes people more likely to open emails, click links, or visit unsecured websites when asked to.
Hackers often use temporary mail servers to spam their targets with a spear phishing campaign. Spear phishing attacks typically originate from valid domain email servers and can appear more trustworthy.
Using a real domain and the free server associated with it guarantees a higher reputation score. This reduces the chance of emails being blocked.
Reaping the Spoils
After a successful spear phishing attack, the hacker will periodically monitor the victim’s activities on their devices and collect log-in credentials, financial information, confidential personal information, etc.
It depends on the attack’s main purpose to begin with. But any data breaches that steal log-in, financial, or sensitive information can be used for financial gain.
Spear Phishing Examples
With enough information about your online activities, a cybercriminal might try to send you an email posing as Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, or any organization behind a service you use consistently.
In the email body, the attacker may outline a scenario in which a recent security breach requires you to demonstrate that you’re the rightful account holder. The attack will almost always leave a link in the email that will redirect you to a fake website designed to download malware or collect your account details.
The sender’s email address is one of the biggest giveaways in most phishing attacks. It may look legitimate at first glance, but upon closer inspection, it might just be a very similar name, could contain extra letters, grammar mistakes, and other inconsistencies.
Other common examples of spear phishing attacks may use scare tactics. This is when attackers create a sense of urgency, prompting the target to take a specific action to avoid a security problem, meet a deadline at work, make a payment, etc.
In other cases, the emails contain attachments the receiver didn’t ask for yet are presented as crucial to open. Some emails may be so bold as to ask you to make a wire transfer from a provided link or discuss trade secrets.
Given the in-depth knowledge of the subject, a spear phishing attack is really limited only by the cybercriminal’s imagination. The ruse can be different for everyone, yet the goal remains consistent. It’s all about stealing sensitive information directly or installing malicious software using targeted attacks.
Spear Phishing vs. Whaling Attacks
Because of the personalized nature of spear phishing over regular phishing attacks, spear phishing and whaling are often used interchangeably. But these are slightly different methods of gaining access to confidential information.
A spear phishing attack is very precise. It emphasizes quality and personalization. The attacker’s research and vast knowledge of the subject are what usually trick the victim into doing the hacker’s bidding.
While whaling shares some similarities, it differs regarding targets and the type of information desired. A whaling attack only targets C-level targets.
These are big targets, or those in high management and leadership positions, like a company’s CEO or a company executive. Think of people with guaranteed access to sensitive financial information, proprietary information, trade secrets, etc.
This type of phishing attack can steal much more valuable sensitive data and have very serious consequences.
Top Three Methods to Prevent Spear Phishing Attacks
Due to the extensive reconnaissance methods that go into personalizing spear phishing campaigns and targeted attacks, it’s easy for hackers to pass themselves off as trustworthy email senders. That’s why these are the most successful phishing campaigns.
With that said, it doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to prevent them. The weakest security link when it comes to phishing is the human element. If people don’t buy into the ruse, the attack won’t work.
In addition, should people fall victim to these attacks, there must be other protocols in place to prevent the release of confidential information.
Educational Campaigns and Security Awareness Training
Even the most well-researched phishing attack has nothing but the content quality going for it. The reason people fall into these traps is a lack of awareness about phishing tactics and common red flags.
Running regular email security awareness training to educate employees at every organizational level is imperative if you’re a business owner.
The more up to date employees are on the dangers, the more vigilant they’ll be and the higher the likelihood they’ll think twice before responding to sketchy or unsolicited emails.
Explain how to look for common grammar mistakes and how to distinguish a genuine email from fake email claims or an unsecured log-in page with real-world examples.
Getting redirected to a fake website or downloading malware that passes through antivirus software undetected can still happen. Keyloggers (software that records information sent from a keyboard to a computer) can still find their way onto devices to capture and forward log-in credentials.
Two-factor authentication could help protect devices and accounts even if a hacker knows the IDs and passwords associated with them. They would still need an additional token, usually sent to the user’s phone via text message.
With those codes being generated for each log-in attempt, the spear phishers won’t be able to do anything with those credentials without having access to the target’s phone.
Better Password Management Policies
These days, people could realistically use over a dozen different passwords to access their social media accounts, work email, personal email, recruitment platforms, streaming platforms, etc. Remembering so many passwords can be mind-boggling, especially if you want to make them hard to guess.
This is what tempts many people to use the same password for everything. It’s also the biggest mistake most hackers count on, and why any phishing attack can do substantial damage.
Using different strong passwords and log-in credentials is vital, even if it’s harder to memorize them. Password manager software can help with this and eliminate the need to physically type a password each time you log into a website. This would make keyloggers essentially useless.
Another good password management policy is to always type an incorrect password when trying to log into an account. Most phishing sites or fake websites will accept an incorrect password. That’s a good indicator that you’re not visiting a legitimate website.
Beware the Masterful Spear Phishers
While most phishing attacks revolve around fake phone calls and malicious emails that no one would fall for, spear phishing is different.
These targeted attacks are carried out with tactical precision and are designed to immediately earn the target’s trust using personal information, the right conversation topics, organizational information, impersonating a particular person or trustworthy individuals, agencies, companies, etc.
The first rules in spear phishing prevention are to focus on the details of an email that go beyond the email body; look for unsolicited attachments, weird website or sender names; unusual links; and sketchy requests. Failing to follow these might give the anti-malware software the chance to do its job.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are some examples of spear phishing?
Common threats associated with this practice include phishing site redirects, CEO fraud, malware injection, and financial information theft.
How common are spear phishing attacks?
It really depends on what security company conducts the study and how many companies identify attacks or notify the public about them. But some reports show that over 80% of organizations have dealt with spear phishing attacks.
What protects from spear phishing?
Good malware protection, security awareness, two-factor authentication, and better browsing practices can protect against phishing attacks.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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