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Spear phishing attacks: Definition, recognition, and protection

Spear phishing is a type of phishing directed not at random people but at selected individuals and companies. Spear phishers usually polish their tactics to improve their success rate. Learn more about spear phishing and why it is vitally important to identify it and educate others.

Spear phishing attacks: Definition, recognition, and protection

What is spear phishing?

Spear phishing is a type of targeted phishing that uses social engineering techniques to target specific individuals or organizations through email. Instead of sending thousands of generic scam emails (phishing), the malicious actor gathers personal information about the recipient (name, email address, employment information, and interests) and crafts a personalized and believable message.

Spear phishing emails may appear to come from a trusted colleague, friend, or institution, urging the victim to click on a link or provide personal information. However, the malicious actors behind spear phishing emails aim to steal data or money, commit espionage, or install malware on the victim’s device, disrupting the network’s performance.

How to spot a spear phishing email

Hackers use no specific template for spear phishing emails to trick victims into giving away their private data or clicking on malicious links. So knowing the different methods bad actors use to ensure a successful spear phishing cyberattack is extremely important. Handle the email with caution if it contains any of the following red flags:

  • Phishers usually try to create a sense of urgency, guilt, or fear to trick you into taking action without overthinking. They may provoke you with such phrases as “immediate action required” or “account will be closed.”
  • Spear phishing emails mimic legitimate email addresses with slight changes. Be wary of an unusual email address format.
  • Mistakes in spelling and grammar may alert you to a malicious email. However, attackers usually craft spear phishing emails meticulously to appear as convincing as possible.
  • Even if the email seems legitimate, beware of odd requests, especially if the sender requires sensitive information or money. It’s always better to contact the sender by other means to ensure their request is legitimate.
  • Sometimes spear phishing emails contain URLs, so check them carefully before clicking. And be wary of shortened links because they can lead to malicious sites.
  • Look for unexpected attachments. They may contain malware or ransomware.

How to report a spear phishing attempt

Reporting a spear phishing attempt is essential to protect yourself or your organization from further damage. Take the following steps if you suspect a spear phishing attack:

  • Contact the IT or security team if you’ve received a spear phishing email in your work email. It will take action to protect the network and other employees.
  • Report the sender to the email service provider. The most popular ones (Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook) have reporting mechanisms that improve internal spam filters and prevent similar messages from reaching other users.
  • Many countries have specific government agencies responsible for cybercrimes. For example, if you’re from the US, contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in case of a spear phishing attack.
  • If an attacker impersonates a specific company, let the company know. It should report the incident and inform its customers.

Spear phishing vs. phishing vs. whaling: Understanding the difference

Wondering how spear phishing is different from phishing and whaling? Let’s look at the comparison of these cyber threats:

PhishingSpear phishingWhaling
TargetBroad, unspecific audience. Often targets large numbers of individuals.Attackers target specific individuals or organizations with carefully crafted messages.High-profile individuals such as executives or senior management.
ValueLow individual value per target, relies on volume for success.High value per target due to personalization and specific targeting.Very high value, focusing on individuals with significant influence or access within an organization.
MethodRelies on mass email campaigns, malicious websites, or broad social media messages.Attackers conduct detailed research and employ social engineering to craft convincing messages tailored to the target.Similar to spear phishing in terms of personalized emails or communications but often involves more sophisticated tactics.
ExampleSending out a generic email asking for bank details to thousands of random email addresses.Sending an email that appears to be from a known contact or organization, asking for login credentials.Sending an email impersonating a government agency to a company CEO, asking for sensitive financial information.

Examples of spear phishing attacks

If you want to learn more about malicious spear phishing tactics, skim through these examples:

  • Cybercriminals might want to target a company’s CEO to steal data or a person responsible for the organization’s security to get essential logins. Attacks targeting such senior individuals are also known as whaling.
  • Cybercriminals carefully research the organization online to find out which people to target. LinkedIn is particularly useful in such cases.
  • Cybercriminals personalize their messages rather than sending blasts of generic ones.
  • They imitate the company’s tone of voice and communication habits to seem more genuine. They can initiate false requests to determine the company’s communication patterns beforehand.
  • They look through the company’s emails and create similar-looking ones via apps offering temporary email services.

How to protect yourself from spear phishing attacks

Follow the tips below to protect yourself and your company’s assets from spear phishing attacks:

  • If you accidentally opened a phishing email, do not open attachments or links or give out any information to people or organizations you don’t know or find suspicious. Always do some research about the attachments first.
  • If you get a suspicious message from someone you know or someone that looks reliable, always double-check with that person or organization via their official channels.
  • Do not display your company’s email addresses in public. Instead, use an online contact form to communicate with your customers.
  • Learn about different spear phishing methods and educate your employees.
  • Use the most up-to-date security software. We also recommend using NordVPN’s Threat Protection anti-phishing feature. It helps you identify malware-ridden files, stops you from landing on malicious websites, and blocks trackers and intrusive ads on the spot.
  • Always check the sender’s email address to ensure the email is not malicious. It is an obvious red flag if you notice even the tiniest difference from a legitimate one (e.g., typos).
  • Limit the amount of info you post on social media. Do not share internal data that exposes your company’s activities, communication habits, or employee data. Share only the most essential and neutral info.
  • Look for grammar mistakes, which are also a red flag in emails.
  • Use two-factor authentication and strong passwords.