What Does Spear Phishing Mean?
Spear phishing is a type of social engineering cyber attack that targets a specific individual or small group of individuals. The goal of this type of malicious exploit is to trick the victim into carrying out a desired action on behalf of the attacker.
Before reaching out to the victim, the spear phisher invests time gathering information about their intended victim from company websites and public databases, as well as LinkedIn and other social media platforms.
The research is used to provide details that will help the attacker impersonate a trusted person or organization the target is familiar with. This strategy has been shown to significantly increase the likelihood that the recipient will take the desired action.
Spear Phishing vs. Phishing
Instead of casting a wide net and sending out phishing messages in bulk, a spear phisher will impersonate a specific person or entity that the target knows and trusts and use the names of their target’s colleagues, supervisors, or business partners to make their messages appear to be legitimate. The level of personalization can be deep and reference recent events, shared experiences, company jargon, or internal projects to make the attack more convincing.
The extra effort the attacker spends personalizing their correspondence makes fraudulent spear phishing messages difficult to identify. It is also the primary reason why this type of attack is statistically three times more likely to be successful than ordinary phishing exploits.
The attacker’s message appears to be from someone in a well-known company or organization.
The attacker’s message appears to be from a specific individual or entity the target knows and trusts.
The content of a phishing message is generic and could apply to many people.
The content of a spear phishing email is tailored specifically for the recipient.
The attacker sends out messages in bulk in hopes of getting at least one recipient to perform the desired action.
The attacker messages an individual that has the power to perform the desired action.
Types of Spear Phishing Attacks
There are many different types of spear phishing attacks. Some of the most common attack vectors include:
Business email compromise (BEC): This type of attack involves sending the potential victim a highly personalized email that appears to be from a legitimate business partner or vendor.
Watering hole attack: This type of attack involves infecting a website that the victim visits frequently and then following it up by delivering a message that instructs the victim to visit the website for some legitimate-sounding reason.
Vishing: This type of attack uses voice messages to reach the victim. The caller may use artificial intelligence (AI) voice cloning to impersonate someone the victim knows and trick them into providing sensitive information over the phone.
CEO Fraud: In this type of attack, the cybercriminal will impersonate a high-ranking executive within an organization in order to get the victim to perform an action they might refuse to do for someone lower on the organizational totem pole.
Whaling: In this type of spear phishing, the attacker goes after an organization’s “big fish.” These individuals often have high-level privileges and access to confidential and critical data.
Successful Spear Phishing Exploits
Famous examples of successful spear phishing attacks include:
- Yahoo Hack: In 2013, cybercriminals launched a spear phishing attack on a Yahoo employee that resulted in over 3 billion users having their personal information stolen.
- Target Data Breach: In 2013, hackers launched a successful spear phishing attack on Target, a major U.S. retailer, by tricking an employee at an outside vendor into clicking on a malicious email.
- The Home Depot Data Breach: In 2014, cybercriminals used spear phishing tactics to compromise vendor credentials and penetrate the retailer’s internal IT systems. Once inside the network, the attackers installed custom malware that collected personal and financial information from 7,500 of The Home Depot’s self-checkout registers.
- Sony Pictures Hack: In 2014, nation-state cyber criminals launched a successful spear phishing attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment executives. The attackers were able to steal server keys and over 100 terabytes of data.
- Anthem Data Breach: In 2015, cybercriminals launched a spear phishing attack on a small group of employees who worked for a subsidiary of Anthem, a health insurance company in the United States. The attackers were able to steal personal information from over 78 million people.
How To Prevent A Spear Phishing Attack From Being Successful
In May 2023, a cloud-based security provider called Barracuda shared the results of their survey on spear phishing. Out of the 1,350 organizations surveyed, half had experienced a spear-phishing attack in 2022, and 39% reported experiencing direct monetary losses as a result of this type of attack.
To prevent spear phishing attacks from being successful, everyone needs to follow cybersecurity best practices and be extra cautious about clicking on links in unsolicited emails.
It’s important to verify the sender’s identity before responding to urgent requests for fund transfers or unusual requests for personal and/or financially sensitive information. Legitimate organizations typically have secure channels for such requests and do not rely solely on unsolicited emails, text messages, or phone calls.
Spear phishing prevention requires technological defenses, vigilant end-user behavior, and regular education on the latest threats. Here are some additional tips for preventing successful phishing attacks against specific individuals or small groups of individuals:
- Check domain spelling. Many spear phishing attempts come from domain names that are one letter off from a trusted site.
- Hover over links before clicking to see if the URL is really from a legitimate domain.
- Always ensure that website URLs (especially ones that require the user to provide passwords or other sensitive data) begin with HTTPS and not just HTTP. The “s” stands for secure.
- Avoid entering personal data into pop-up web page modules. Legitimate companies usually don’t ask for sensitive information this way.
- Don’t trust unsolicited communication. Be wary of unexpected phone calls, emails, or text messages that require an urgent response. When in doubt, contact a company or individual directly to confirm that a request for action is legitimate.
- Stay updated on the latest phishing strategies and techniques.