What Is Spear-Phishing?
In a spear-phishing attack, threat actors target specific individuals within an organization of interest. This social engineering attack is employed to steal sensitive information like login credentials or infect the target’s device with malware, thereby compromising network safety and causing data and financial loss. Whereas common phishing tactics involve sending mass emails to random individuals, spear-phishing focuses on specific targets based on research.
Like those of other phishing attacks, spear-phishing messages appear to originate from trusted sources, such as well-known companies, a person in authority, or a website with a large user base. Unfortunately, many people let their guard down because of the personalized touch in such emails. As a result, they do not verify the email’s authenticity before clicking on a link or downloading an attachment.
Threat actors leverage spear-phishing in targeted attack campaigns to access a specific user’s account to impersonate them. To launch a successful spear-phishing campaign, threat actors perform reconnaissance; they map out the target’s network of personal contacts, which enables them to create a trustworthy message.
Threat actors collect information about potential targets from public sources such as blog chatrooms and social media sites. Sophisticated attackers scan sources of massive amounts of data to identify individuals they want to compromise. Then, they craft a personalized, legitimate-seeming message to convince their target to respond to malicious requests. The success of the phishing attempt depends on familiarity with the source, information supporting its validity, and the logical basis of the request.
Examples of Spear-Phishing Incidents
91 percent of successful data breaches begin with a spear-phishing attack. If a single employee in an organization falls for the spear-phisher’s trap, the attacker can impersonate that individual and use social engineering techniques to access more sensitive data.
The December 2020 spear-phishing attack on U.S. healthcare provider Elara Caring compromised over 100,000 pieces of data belonging to patients. The cyberattack started with an unauthorized computer intrusion targeting two employees. It used these employee accounts to obtain names, bank information, social security numbers, driver’s licenses, and insurance information.
In 2015, Russian threat actors launched a spear-phishing attack on a Ukrainian power plant. The attackers used spear-phishing emails to gain initial entry into the system. They remained undetected for more than six months and used malware for credential theft and other techniques at the later stages.
Spear-Phishing vs. Whaling
Spear-phishing attacks typically have multiple targets, whereas whaling attacks target only high-level decision-makers within an organization—individuals with access to valuable information, including trade secrets and passwords of administrative company accounts. While attackers employing spear-phishing know a few aspects of the target’s identity, such as the name of an employee of a specific organization or a loyal customer, whaling attackers require more detailed knowledge and a highly personalized message to appear authentic.
In a spear-phishing attack, the threat actor seeks to access assets available to a particular group of victims, like intellectual property or user credentials. On the other hand, the motive behind whaling attacks is primarily financial, as the attackers try to persuade the target to part with large sums of money. Also, the damages of a successful whaling attack are typically much greater than that of a spear-phishing attack.
How to Detect and Prevent Spear-Phishing
Today’s threat actors are more sophisticated than ever. They infuse highly personalized attributes into their spear-phishing campaigns, making them more deceptive and dangerous. And despite the rise of anti-phishing security solutions, many spear-phishing campaigns still evade detection.
To detect and combat spear-phishing, an organization must leverage cybersecurity solutions that use advanced machine learning capabilities that conduct phishing simulations and proactive investigations to uncover questionable content, such as malware-related attachments. It is also necessary to configure, integrate, and patch all critical services and deploy multifactor authentication capabilities to protect sensitive data and systems.
Above all, ongoing, robust security awareness training is critical for reinforcing good security hygiene and ensuring that employees are educated on the evolving nature of spear-phishing tactics, techniques, and procedures.