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What is Spear Phishing?

50% of organizations fall victim to spear phishing attacks. What is spear phishing and how can we defend against it?

Piper Rundell

August 17, 2023

What is Spear Phishing: Protecting Yourself in a Deceptive Digital Landscape

In a world where digital communication has become the norm, cyber threats have increased in frequency and evolved in complexity and danger. Amidst the onslaught, phishing attacks stand out specifically as one of the most prevalent and pressing threats. Phishing attacks involve luring unsuspecting individuals into disclosing sensitive information, such as login credentials and financial details, and cost consumers billions a year. While many of us have become familiar with these scams and have learned to exercise caution, a more insidious variant known as "spear phishing" has emerged. But what is spear phishing and how can we defend against it?

What is Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing is a highly targeted and personalized form of phishing attack. Unlike generic phishing attempts where cybercriminals cast a wide net and send a malicious link in mass with the hope of catching a few victims, spear phishing takes a more strategic approach. With spear phishing, hackers meticulously research their victims to learn about their relationships, behaviors, and preferences. With this knowledge in hand, they craft convincing messages that appear to be from trusted individuals like bosses, coworkers, clients, family members, friends, or even local businesses the victim frequents. Assuming these convincing messages are trustworthy, consumers click on the malicious links and fall victim to the trap. These messages come in many forms but with 3.4B attacks daily, email attacks are most prevalent.

Spear Phishing vs Phishing

A regular phishing scam involves sending out mass emails to a large number of potential victims, usually impersonating a well-known entity like a bank or an online service. These emails contain malicious links that direct recipients to fraudulent websites designed to steal their personal information.

In contrast, spear phishing goes beyond the one-size-fits-all approach. It's a personalized attack that targets specific individuals, making use of their personal information to create convincing messages that work around many of the usual warning signs.

visual comparison of standard phishing: cast a wide net approach, vs spear phishing: individually targeting a specific victim
Visual comparison of standard phishing vs spear phishing

Phishing Happens

Anyone can fall victim to a spear phishing attack - even the most advanced tech companies in the world. Between 2013 and 2015, a hacker posed as Taiwan-based hardware manufacturer Quanta Computer and sent customers Google and Facebook $100M worth of fraudulent invoices… which they paid. Bloomberg eventually reported the case stating, "The scheme netted about $23 million from Google in 2013 and about $98 million from Facebook in 2015”.

Companies aren’t the only targets - municipalities are, too. Another attack involved an entire county in New York as a hacker posed as a construction contractor and tricked the Public Works Department into electronically transferring over $100,000 to the imposter.

How to Prevent Data Breaches

Spear phishing attacks are difficult to identify, but they aren’t impossible to avoid. To help keep yourself and your organization safe from harm, we recommend implementing four easy practices to increase organizational vigilance and decrease potential harm:

  1. Analyze Email Addresses: Always scrutinize the sender's email address. Cybercriminals often use email addresses that closely resemble legitimate ones but contain subtle differences.
  2. Be Cautious of Links: Hover over links to preview the actual URL before clicking. Be wary of embedded hyperlinks, or link shorteners in text; they can lead to malicious websites.
  3. Question Unusual Requests: If an email requests sensitive information, money, or tasks that seem out of the ordinary, verify the request through a separate communication channel before taking any action.
  4. Implement Verified Links: Use Verified Links to establish sources of truth within your organization and make it easy for everyone to tell good links from bad.

The Importance of Vigilance

A report by Barracuda revealed that 50% of organizations surveyed fell victim to a spear phishing attack. This emphasizes the crucial need for vigilance and education in today's digital landscape. While it's nearly impossible to scrutinize every email and communication, there are tools and practices that can help mitigate the risks.

Whag’s Verified Links make it easy for individuals and organizations to tell good links from bad. Scammers can’t use the system and our Safe Stops instantly show link clickers who created the link and when. The Whag community Blocklist empowers users to identify and report suspicious links and our Whitelists make it easy for teams to aggregate and securely share digital resources. It’s generally difficult to tell good links from bad, but Whag makes it easy.

Building a Safer Online Ecosystem

In today’s digital age, spear phishing is an ever present threat. You never know where the traps may be lurking but thankfully, there are tools and best practices that anyone can implement to help mitigate risk and fight back against malicious links. By staying informed, employing careful click habits, and leveraging the power of community-driven tools like Whag, we can work together to create a more secure online ecosystem.