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Spear Phishing vs. Phishing: What’s the Difference?

Spear Phishing vs. Phishing: What’s the Difference?

Spear phishing and phishing are two types of cyberattacks that threat actors use to extract sensitive and confidential information from individuals.

While these two social engineering tactics are often used interchangeably, they differ in terms of the approach and scope that hackers use.

We’ll share the differences between spear phishing vs. phishing and explain how you can protect your system from spear phishing attacks.

Plus, we’ll share how you can identify and mitigate cyberthreats using Analyst1 — the leading threat intelligence tool for organizations.

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What Is Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing is a type of phishing attack that threat actors or hackers utilize to trick specific individuals or organizations into clicking a harmful link through an email.

This type of phishing attack allows threat actors to conduct espionage (spying), install malware or steal sensitive information, such as usernames, passwords or credit card details.

Threat actors utilize social engineering techniques, such as baiting, to lure in the user. After the recipient takes the bait, the threat actor steals the user’s login details and gains unauthorized access to the network — which typically occurs unnoticed.

A fishing hook that caught a laptop, tablet and smartphone​
Spear phishing is a form of phishing attack where hackers deceive individuals into clicking a malicious link in an email​

Spear Phishing vs. Phishing

While spear phishing is a type of phishing attack that targets specific individuals or organizations, a phishing attack targets random individuals, usually in large numbers.

Spear phishing takes advantage of detailed and personalized information to make the attack more convincing.

On the other hand, phishing utilizes generic messages, like emails that are sent to mass audiences, with the hope that someone will fall for the bait.

Whaling vs. Spear Phishing

Another term that is commonly confused with spear phishing is whaling.

Whaling is a type of phishing attack that specifically targets high-profile individuals, such as CEOs, CFOs or other senior executives, attempting to deceive them into revealing sensitive information or unknowingly authorizing fraudulent transactions.

On the other hand, spear phishing focuses on attacking a broader range of individuals or companies with personalized and detailed information.

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How Does Spear Phishing Work?

Here’s a step-by-step overview of how a spear phishing attack is performed:

  1. The threat actor researches the target: The hacker carefully chooses a target and gathers as much information as possible about the individual or organization. This can include details such as the target’s name, job role, work relationships and more.
  2. The threat actor crafts the email: Based on the collected information, the hacker composes a convincing and personalized email. The email may appear to come from a trusted source, like a coworker or a reputable company, and may address the target by name, making it seem legitimate.
  3. The threat actor embeds malicious content into the email: The threat actor adds malicious links or attachments that request the recipient’s sensitive information. Clicking on the malicious content can lead to a security breach, such as malware installation or credentials theft.
  4. The threat actor sends the email: The hacker sends the crafted email. Spear phishing emails are often meticulously designed to bypass spam filters and other security measures.
  5. The threat actor executes the spear phishing attack: Once the recipient falls for the spear phishing email and interacts with the malicious content, such as clicking on the link or opening an attachment, the hacker executes the attack to steal data and compromise the organization’s systems.
  6. The threat actor gains unauthorized access: Once the hacker has gained access to systems or information, they can exploit it in various ways, like conducting financial fraud, stealing intellectual property, or launching further attacks within the organization.

Spear Phishing Email Examples

Spear phishing emails are usually highly personalized, convincing recipients to click on them.

Here are a few examples of spear phishing emails:

Example 1: Fake Invoice From a Known Vendor

Subject: Urgent: Outstanding Invoice #45678 for [Your Company Name]

Email Body:

Dear [Recipient’s Name],

I hope this email finds you well. We have noticed that Invoice #45678, due last week, is still outstanding. Please find the attached invoice for services provided to [Your Company Name].

Please process this invoice at the earliest to avoid any late fees.

Kind Regards,

[Name of a real person at the known vendor]

[Vendor Company Name]

[Contact Information]

Attachment: Invoice_45678.pdf (malicious file)

Example 2: Password Reset Request

Subject: Immediate Action Required: Reset Your Password

Email Body:

Dear [Recipient’s Name],

We have detected several failed login attempts to your [Name of a service you use] account. For your security, we recommend you reset your password immediately.

Please click the link below to reset your password:

[Malicious Link]

If you did not request a password reset, please contact our support team immediately at [Fake Support Email] or [Fake Support Phone Number].

Best Regards,

[Name of the Service]

Customer Support Team

Example 3: Internal Request for Information

Subject: Employee Benefits Information Needed

Email Body:

Hello [Recipient’s Name],

As part of our annual audit, we are verifying employee benefits information. Please review the attached document and confirm the accuracy of the information.

Your prompt response is appreciated.

Thank you,

[Name of a real colleague or superior]

[Your Company Name]

[Contact Information]

Attachment: Employee_Benefits_Info.docx (malicious file)

An employee typing his password​
Phishing emails may appear to come from a trusted source and addresses the recipient by name​

How To Protect Your Organization From Spear Phishing

Implementing a cybersecurity strategy can help protect your organization from highly targeted and sophisticated spear phishing attacks.

Here’s how you can safeguard your company from these attacks and improve your cybersecurity posture:

  • Encrypt your data: Use encryption software and tools, such as Microsoft BitLocker or NordLocker, to secure sensitive data. Encryption helps ensure that even if your data is intercepted, it remains inaccessible to unauthorized users.
  • Backup data regularly: Conduct regular backups of important data, such as configuration files, operating systems and registry files, to ensure its availability in the event of ransomware attacks or data loss incidents.
  • Utilize multi-factor authentication (MFA): Implement MFA wherever possible, so users are required to provide multiple forms of verification before gaining access. MFA can include passwords, personal identification number (PIN), biometrics (like fingerprints) or voice recognition.
  • Authenticate your email: Implement email authentication standards, such as DMARC, DKIM, and SPF to validate the authenticity of incoming emails. This can help prevent email spoofing or email messages sent with a fake address and reduce the risk of phishing attacks.
  • Update your software: Regularly update your organization’s software, including operating systems, programs and applications, to address issues like bugs and security concerns. Updating your software also protects your network against malware and other security threats.
  • Ignore suspicious email attachments: Advise employees to be cautious with email attachments and links, especially from unknown sources. Any suspicious emails should be reported to the IT department immediately.
  • Use strong passwords and regularly update them: Enforce a strong password policy in the workplace, requiring a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters in each password. Encourage employees to change their passwords regularly and avoid using the same password across multiple platforms. If one account is compromised, it can enable threat actors to access all accounts that share the same password.
  • Regularly monitor and audit network activity: Regularly review logs and monitor network activity to detect any unusual or unauthorized behavior.
  • Secure your networks: Use firewalls, VPNs and a secure Wi-Fi network to protect your data from external threats and to secure communication between your organization’s systems and external entities.
  • Establish an incident response plan: Develop an incident response plan to ensure swift and coordinated action in the event of a security breach.
  • Educate your employees: Conduct regular cybersecurity training and awareness programs to educate your employees on how to recognize and respond to phishing attempts.
  • Implement advanced threat protection solutions: Implement advanced threat intelligence platforms, like Analyst1, to proactively detect and mitigate cyberthreats.
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Automate Spear Phishing Detection & Mitigation With Analyst1

A recent study in 2022 found that organizations from across the globe experienced malware infections due to a spear-phishing attack, making cybersecurity an integral component in ensuring the safety and integrity of your data and operations.

Analyst1 — a comprehensive threat intelligence platform that was created by analysts for analysts — is the platform of choice by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the organization responsible for defending the United States from cyber threats.

Analyst1 offers threat intelligence, threat detection and automation and response (SOAR) services that allow your organization to:

  • Automatically consolidate and correlate data from different sources
  • Access and utilize the most relevant data and insights from a centralized platform
  • Recognize the scope of each threat to plan appropriate responses
  • Create, verify and apply protections across all of your security systems
  • Build security operations informed by threat intelligence
  • Link security incidents with relevant intelligence
  • Understand and prioritize security risks
  • Search for threats using a database of risk indicators
  • Enhance your company’s security configurations from a centralized location
  • Efficiently create, allocate and dispatch tickets to teams
  • Execute programming swiftly, within days instead of months

With Analyst1, you can experience enhanced cybersecurity and stay a step ahead of global cyberthreats.

Discover what Analyst1 can do for your organization’s security.
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