Phishing is one of the most common forms of cyber attacks. In fact, in 2021 over 600,000 phishing websites were detected, marking a sharp increase from previous years. Phishing remains one of the most popular strategies used by cybercriminals due to its relative simplicity and effectiveness. Whereas many other cyber attacks require weaknesses in security defense architecture to exploit, phishing activities target individuals through social engineering tactics. This article will explore the ins and outs of spear phishing and how businesses can defend against them.

What is spear phishing?

Spear phishing is a specific type of phishing scam. It is the act of creating fraudulent yet legitimate-looking emails to gain a victim’s trust. The attacker's ultimate goal is to trick the victim into, for example, providing sensitive information, clicking on a spoofed website, or sending money. This may be done by spoofing an individual’s or organization’s identity.

What Is Spear Phishing And How Does It Work

How is spear phishing different from other types of phishing?

Phishing is a broad term encompassing various techniques. Alongside spear phishing, there are phishing, whaling, and many more. Regular phishing attacks are more general in their targeting and prioritize quantity over quality. A phishing email may be sent out to hundreds or even thousands of people at once in the hopes that even just one person falls for the trap. In contrast, spear phishing is more targeted in its approach. By targeting specific vulnerable individuals, spear phishing is both more effective and harder to detect.

How does spear phishing work?

Spear phishing attacks start with a communication channel. The attacker will send an email or text message, for example, where they pose as someone else. This message will typically include one of the following:

  • A request for confidential information such as passwords, PINs, and other sensitive information that should not be shared
  • A link to a malicious website where the victim may lose information to keylogging software
  • A disguised malware attachment
  • An open communication channel to build trust before enacting one of the above

Due to their specificity, spear phishing attacks are often very personalized. Before sending the message, the attacker will conduct a thorough research about the victim. Information such as the names of superiors is then used in the email to build trust and feign legitimacy. Even the most vigilant of employees can be caught off guard by spear phishing attacks, and it only takes one mistake to potentially disclose highly sensitive information.

What are some common spear phishing methods?

Each spear phishing attack will look different. This makes it vital to know some of the common tricks attackers use.

  • Impersonation of superiors: It is extremely common for spear phishers to impersonate C-Suite employees, directors, and founders when targeting employees.
  • Email updates: By sending out an “update” email clone of a legitimate email, many employees will not think twice about its legitimacy.
  • Special offers: Discounts and other limited-time offers are commonly used to incentivize clicks on malicious links or download attachments.
  • Impersonation of brands: By posing as a well-known, trusted brand, spear phishing emails appear more legitimate.

Who is targeted by spear phishing attacks?

Spear phishing targets are chosen carefully and strategically by the attacker. They are typically the most vulnerable, trusting, and inexperienced employees that still have access to sensitive information. This means that less experienced employees are commonly targeted alongside those with access to financial accounts, executive-level access, and more.

Why spear phishing remains a threat

The reason spear phishing remains a threat past many other cyber-attacks is because of its human element. Vulnerable employees will always exist for attackers to take advantage of. Cyber attacks are constantly evolving to target new vulnerabilities and exploit new weaknesses. Fortunately, there is a wide range of reputable cyber security vendors like Sangfor that offer a range of next-gen solutions to effectively defend against such attacks.

How to defend against spear phishing

Here are a few steps to take to effectively prevent your organization from falling victim to a spear phishing attack:

#1 Educate yourself and all employees

Spear phishing attacks pose little threat if they are all correctly identified at the onset. Security awareness training on how to identify suspicious emails should be conducted. By training your employees on all the warning signs of phishing communications such as malicious email, your organization becomes far less vulnerable. As a general rule of thumb, all communications should be checked for:

  • The sender
  • Suspicious requests
  • Attachments and links

#2 Enable two-factor authentication

By enabling two (or more) factor authentication on all sensitive business accounts, the attacker has a much more difficult task of extracting information using a stolen password or PIN.

#3 Utilize next-gen security software

A range of cyber security solutions can help your organization detect and prevent spear phishing attempts.

  • Sangfor Network Secure - Next Generation Firewall (NGFW) is a next-generation firewall that utilizes AI technology to offer a comprehensive and effective defense. NGAF can inspect IPs, URLs, and files in real time while offering protection. Should anything suspicious be flagged, the connection is immediately terminated.
  • Sangfor Endpoint Secure is industry-leading and AI-powered cyber security software operating like an antivirus. Endpoint Secure is capable of detecting and eliminating any malicious software that may have been downloaded from a phishing email. It can also work in tandem with NGAF to eliminate the entire infection chain.
  • Sangfor Cyber Command is network detection and response (NDR) software that can analyze traffic in real-time to detect threats. In the unlikely event that a spear phishing attack makes it past solutions like NGAF and Endpoint Secure, malicious activities in the network will be identified and pinpointed for elimination.

Learn more

If you have any questions about phishing or protecting your organization from potential cyber attacks, please contact us.

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