Skip to content

Understanding Spear Phishing Attacks and How to Prevent Them

Understanding Spear Phishing Attacks and How to Prevent Them

If you are unfamiliar with spear phishing, it is one of several types of internet phishing scams. Over 60 percent of all known criminal hackers engage in spear phishing attacks. At most companies, spear phishing attacks start with the uninitiated employee lacking an adequate background in cybersecurity training.

Over the past two years, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) has recorded complaints associated with phishing attacks in record numbers. And spear phishing was the most prominent of all the reported cyber incidents. Ransomeware attacks are similarly on the rise. Together, they account for more than 54 million in adjusted losses.

We’ve put together this brief guide to help define spear phishing, what companies should know about it, and a highlight a few best practices for preventing an attack.

What is spear phishing?

Spear phishing is a type of cyberattack in which online scammers send out highly customized emails that look like they originate from a known entity or trusted organization. The modus operandi of a spear phisher is to target vulnerable users and portray the electronic communication as coming from a legitimate source to trick victims into providing sensitive information, transferring assets, or downloading hazardous malware.

Phishing tactics have been around for quite some time. The attack is one of the most effective means of extracting confidential information from web users. While phishing attacks are more general, spear phishing implies a targeted attack. Traditional phishing attacks consist of scam artists who send a single fishing email to thousands of recipients at once, essentially playing a numbers game. Spear phishing, conversely, targets individuals with access to sensitive data and assets with specific luring techniques, namely those that aim to establish personal trust.

Why are so many spear phishing attacks successful?

You might recall some of the original phishing scams that involved a stranded “Nigerian prince” in desperate need of financial aid. But modern phishing attacks have evolved into well-examined, remarkably effective criminal campaigns. Many spear phishing attacks are almost impossible to detect. And once the incursion starts, it is virtually impossible to reverse.

Social engineering is the most popular strategy among attackers who deploy spear phishing attacks. Social engineering typically relies on some perception of social proof, for instance, a blue checkmark on social media or company logos and graphics identical to a company with whom you regularly conduct business. Scammers use social engineering to lend credibility to themselves while hoping that an unwitting target falls victim to their attack.

How spear phishing impacts your organization

A spear phishing attack can occur in more than one way. Spear phishers most often send emails out to their intended victims. The electronic mailing typically includes a malicious link or attachments with instructions to open them. If the target fails to exercise caution and clicks the link or opens the file, dangerous malware or ransomware subsequently downloads to your company computer, potentially impacting your entire network.

Another way spear phishers attack is by sending emails to their intended targets that direct the victim to a spoofed web page. The website asks the user to provide sensitive and confidential information like PINs, login credentials, and company access codes. In other cases, the scammer presents as an associate, friend, or superior requesting access to protected accounts. Once access is gained, criminal hackers use the credentials to penetrate your organization further and cause serious harm.

How to prevent spear phishing attacks

While most organizations inevitably fall victim to a cybersecurity incident, several good practices go a long way in preventing them. The first step is to assume a proactive approach to your cybersecurity. Secondly, a robust security awareness training program is the surest way to guarantee your employees never fall victim to a targeted spear phishing attack.

Cybersecurity training should be ongoing if you aim to prevent a harmful attack. Businesses that thwart cyber threats most effectively incorporate cybersecurity training into their onboarding procedures. These organizations similarly offer routine refresher courses for current staff, including leadership teams, to keep their data and critical systems safe.

Lastly, using multi-factor authentication (MFA) drastically reduces exposure to spear phishing and other cyber attacks. Multi-factor authentication requires company users to provide at least two identifying verification factors before accessing sensitive resources. This extra level of protection decreases the likelihood of a successful spear phishing attack.

Should a password ever become compromised during a spear phishing attack, MFA effectively renders the password useless because of the additional authentication steps. Using varied passwords is also an effective way to maintain good cybersecurity hygiene.

Have additional questions about spear phishing attack prevention and other cyber threats like malware and ransomware? Reach out to PCH Technologies at (856) 754-7500 or fill out our online form to book your free discovery call today.