What is spear phishing? Stopping customized attacks

Anton P. | September 16, 2020

Spear phishing marks a shift from massive user targeting to hand-picking potential victims. The digital universe is an enormous storehouse, stocking billions of records and logs. Disturbingly, a chunk of this collection belongs to the public record. Translation: anyone can access and review it. Pair it with the data disclosed by netizens voluntarily, and user profiling becomes simple. Spear phishing is a manifestation of how hackers abuse these boundless data-retrieving practices. Crooks find victims, study them, and target them with customized malicious attacks. Want to learn more? Let’s figure out how spear phishing differs from regular phishing.

What is spear phishing?

Spear phishing is a detailed and premeditated attack against corporations or individuals through various electronic means. It combines impersonation, deception, and forceful pressing for completing specific actions. Traditionally, phishing focuses on email environments such as Gmail. However, cybercriminals’ tactics extend to fraudulent SMS or calls, a practice known as vishing.

However, spear phishing underlines a specific manner of performing social engineering scams. While the targeted channels remain, the groundwork is much more prominent. Instead of targeting the general public, crooks hatch onto targets deemed highly-rewarding. While it might seem that only high-profile victims should fear spear phishing, anyone could become potential prey. Hence, from these explanations, let’s devise a brief plan of how spear phishing happens, step-by-step.

How does spear phishing work?

  1. Victim selection. The chances of becoming a target of spear phishing increase if you work for influential and notable corporations. Crooks might go for employees that have the preferred authorizations, confidential information, or other crucial obligations. The Twitter scandal illustrates this scenario perfectly. Hackers deceived carefully selected employees with a refined spear phishing technique. The offputting aftermath included the reveal of internal operations of Twitter and unauthorized access to accounts.
  2. Target and context analysis. The range of extracted information depends on the data available on the public domain. Crooks will usually have no issue figuring out employees’ full names, positions, specialization, or even managers. Copying legitimate email templates or pre-recording similar interlude messages contribute to the creation of a convincing scam. With all the elements in place, hackers are ready to send out deceptive emails or contact victims via other means.
  3. Adding targets’ private information. Customization of emails is the main ingredient in spear phishing attacks. Crooks use the well-researched details and incorporate them into emails. For instance, a phisher can somehow retrieve recent bank transactions and use them as the convincing lead. However, spear phishing is not always after monetary benefits. The payoff might come in confidential data.
  4. Attack launch and negotiations. The fraudulent email might prompt victims to perform a specific action as quickly as possible. For instance, people might need to fill forms, click on links, or download files. Other con artists might encourage users to respond to emails. Then, the data extortion occurs during seemingly ordinary communication.

Real-life incidents

According to the recent statistics, 88% of organizations faced spear phishing attacks in 2019. Malicious campaigns have visited thousands of companies worldwide, with over 60% of attacks ending in hackers’ triumph. While the odds are against legitimate corporations, spear phishing is not new. Its devastating impact is public knowledge, with Amazon customers being one of the victims.

Spear phishing against employees might remain under wraps. However, attacks against customers pop up regularly. Such repetitive strikes continue prowling for Facebook users. Countless posts and profiles on the platform help shape convincing spear phishing emails. Hence, highly personalized messages can spread malware, extort data, or compromise the target otherwise on any channel.

Prevention of spear phishing attacks

  • Limit data-sharing online. Active participation in social networking or other channels could be the reason behind spear phishing. If there is enough information to profile you, con artists will misuse it. The simplest trick is to set all accounts to private: only reliable friends will see your full account info.
  • Do not react to suspicious emails. If you receive a security alert from your bank, do not be hasty. Find legitimate contact information and call your provider to explain the situation.
  • Keep the company’s email address secret. Your work email should not leave the internal operations of the corporation. Do not disclose it to any third party, or worse: do not link any work-unrelated services to it.
  • Perform regular cybersecurity training. Instead of relying on employees’ instincts, take time to educate them about the current threat landscape. Spear phishing, social engineering, malware, and password security need to be the central topics of such training.
  • Look for grammatical errors and inconsistencies. Mistakes and odd layout of the email could act as an indication that the email is fake. While sophisticated attacks can copy the design to the last detail, there still might be typos.
  • Update everything regularly. The general rule is to use systems and programs that have the latest updates and patches. Vulnerabilities could facilitate unauthorized access or lead to losses of data, later misused for scams.
  • Use the latest security tools. The burden of keeping track of your security is problematic. Automatization of this process is one way of protecting assets. Antivirus monitors your device and guarantees optimized, virus-free experience. However, hackers’ advances make it clear that techniques for compromising data in transit grow by the day. The solution to this is Atlas VPN and its high-powered encryption. Thanks to the medley of encapsulation and encryption, web traffic resists any attempts to intercept it.
Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.



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