Spear Phishing vs. Phishing: How Can You Protect Yourself?

Oct 2, 2021
5 min read

I’m sure you’ve heard of the ‘Nigerian Prince’ email scam where scammers try to solicit personal details from you. A couple of years back, such emails became way too frequent, with many people getting scammed for thousands of dollars. These are known as phishing scams but come 2021, we have a new and much more dangerous scam. Spear phishing is a highly targeted email scam targeting one specific individual or organization and getting them to perform a particular task.

Spear phishing is mainly done through email, where the sender pretends to be somebody you know so that they can get you to share confidential data. They use email because it’s the easiest way for them to establish credibility without actually showing themselves. In today’s day and age, it’s elementary to find personal information online, and with the spike in data breaches, it’s not hard to access sensitive information online. It only makes it easier for such scammers to carry out malicious attacks.

It’s pretty hard to differentiate between phishing and spear phishing scams, so we’ll break down the differences for you in this article. Additionally, we’ll also look into the best practices for spear phishing prevention. Let’s get into it.

Spear Phishing vs. Phishing

Before we get into how to protect ourselves on the internet, we must understand the differences between phishing and spear phishing. The main difference between these two scams is that the latter is focused on targeted phishing.

Phishing scams are more focused on purporting confidential information such as personal information, passwords, social security numbers, etc. But spear phishing is more about soliciting information from one specific individual or organization. It’s easy to get confused between the two because they sound so similar. An excellent way to categorize them is to see how targeted the email is. For example, suppose the sender has introduced themselves, established a mutual connection, and mentioned an anecdote of their supposed experience with you. In that case, it’s a good chance it’s a spear phishing scam. They are highly focused scams and require a lot of thought and personalization. This should put the spear phishing vs. phishing debates to rest.

An example of spear phishing was that of the Epsilon attack that occurred in 2011. The emails targeted high-level executives asking them to click on links that downloaded malware and disabled all their anti-virus software.

What Makes Spear Phishing More Dangerous

More often than not, people get psyched into the scam simply because of the high level of personalization. In some cases, it’s tough to believe how honest and straightforward some of these emails can be. Combined with the fact that they can most likely get through a company’s spam filters makes it an even more dangerous attack. It has been found that a person’s personality traits such as conscientiousness or optimistic bias can influence their internet vulnerability.

Reconnaissance is a crucial aspect of their setup, and they rely on laser-focused social engineering. Many high-end organizations, including those that are part of governments worldwide, see these kinds of scams daily. It’s pretty easy to do if you have the right set of skills and access to specialized resources such as online phishing kits. Many illegal companies, including those found on the dark web, pay a hefty amount just to scrape the personal data of high-level executives.

How To Identify Spear Phishing Emails

Businesses are the biggest targets of such scams in the market. The two most common spear phishing scams are Brand Impersonation and Business Email Compromise (BEC) scams. They target high-level executives and high net worth individuals and trick them into giving confidential information or downloading malware. Enterprises are a bigger target because of the enormous amounts of data they can access and their high valuation in the market. It’s easier to target one person rather than 100 people.

One of the easiest ways to identify such scams is to see whether or not they’re being sent by unknown senders or are being sent at odd timings. Another way to identify them is to read the language that they’re using. Most of the time, the email will not be using language that is common in a business setting, which could be your internal alarm bell.

The best way to identify a spear phishing email is to see whether or not the sender is asking you to take immediate action. Most of the time, it’ll say something along the lines of changing your personal information or clicking on a link to protect your device. Anything that requires you to disregard company policy is an email designed to attack your enterprise.

Spear Phishing Prevention: Best Practices

There are two ways to implement spear phishing prevention within the organization — one is by learning to identify them, and the other is by building robust defense systems. Let’s have a look at how you can prevent spear phishing attacks in your organization.

Do not give out sensitive information: No matter who asks for it, it’s never advisable to provide personal or confidential data via email.

Employee training: Employees must be trained by experts on how to identify such threats and what measures need to be taken in such cases. These phishing awareness programs must run all year round to keep everybody informed.

Don’t click on unknown links/ attachments: It’s always best to run these attachments through anti-virus software before opening them. Most email providers such as Google and Microsoft have these in-built in their systems.

Communicate through a different channel: If somebody is impersonating someone you know and asking you for sensitive information, contact said person through another medium. Always confirm the request before obliging.

Install competitive intelligence software: It’s a great idea to install competitive intelligence software that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to identify such attacks before they get into your inbox.

Use smart passwords: Use different passwords across different platforms because if the scammers can figure out one of them, all your accounts are compromised. Always use a combination of case-sensitive alphabets, numbers, and special characters.

Use DMARC authentication: Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance or DMARC, in short, can be used to protect scammers from impersonating your brand. It prevents them from accessing company databases using which they can personalize their spear phishing emails.

In addition to these, you can also use spear phishing prevention measures such as Account takeover systems that immediately block access in case of any breach; Multifactor authentication to ensure that authorized personnel is accessing this information, and Prevention of data loss by implementing strict business policies.

Is Spear Phishing Prevention A Viable Option?

Mostly, yes. While such attacks happen in the hundreds and have cost companies billions of dollars over the years, it is possible to prevent them due to the increasing awareness of such attacks. All you need to have is a trained set of eyes. The onus lies on us as individuals and companies as a whole to ensure that we’re taking the best possible measures to avoid them—tagging emails as ‘external’ or building robust email identification systems can make a huge difference. We also need to account for the human factor here, and it’s best to train employees regularly to avoid a billion-dollar blunder.