What Is Spear Phishing? [Examples & Prevention Techniques]

Javed Shah

Social engineering is still one of the most successful forms of attack in the wild, including various phishing attacks. One form of this threat, spear phishing, uses research and user targeting to breach sensitive systems.

What Is Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing is a social engineering attack targeting specific individuals or groups with tailored, sophisticated, and fraudulent communications. In a spear phishing attack, the hacker typically gathers information about the target through extensive research, such as their name, job title, or personal interests. The hacker uses that information to create a compelling message that appears to come from a trusted source, such as a colleague or a company they do business with, to get them to part with their credentials.

The goal of a spear phishing attack is usually to trick the target into divulging sensitive information, such as login credentials or financial data, or to install malware on their computer or mobile device.

What Are Some Key Aspects of Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing is different from regular phishing in several key ways:

  • Targeting: Spear phishing attacks are highly personalized. The attacker behind a spear phishing attack will typically research the target to gather the information that can be used to create a message that appears to be from a trusted source, such as a colleague or a company they do business with.

While regular phishing attacks are typically sent to many people with a generic message, spear phishing attacks include information and messaging that speaks directly to the recipient.

  • Sophistication: Spear phishing attacks are often more sophisticated and convincing than regular phishing attacks. These attacks are more likely to be professional looking with more obfuscation around spoofing and free of spelling and grammatical errors.
  • Objectives: The objective of a spear phishing attack is often more specific than that of a regular phishing attack. Instead of trying to obtain generic information such as login credentials, attackers may want to trick the recipient into accessing critical systems or information or to initiate financial transactions that only the victim can do.

While spear phishing and regular phishing attacks rely on social engineering tactics to trick targets into divulging sensitive information or installing malware, spear phishing attacks are typically more personalized, sophisticated, and specific in their objectives. As a result, spear phishing attacks can be more challenging to detect and defend against.

How Can I Protect Against Spear Phishing Attacks?

Spear Phishing is a significant threat, but it isn’t an insurmountable challenge. There are several short- and long-term practices and processes that your organization can put into place to prevent spear phishing attacks.

Some of these include:

  • Education: Employees should learn about attackers’ tactics and how to recognize a spear phishing attack. The common conception that it’s easier to fool entry-level employees over executives has been disproven over the years. With the rising skills of attackers, everyone in a company org chart must understand how these threats work.
  • Verify And Source of Communication: Before responding to an email or clicking on a link, verify the sender’s email address and check the domain name. If you need more clarification, reach out to the supposed sender through an alternate means to confirm their identity.
  • Implement Email Security: Email security measures such as DMARC, DKIM, SPF, and other methods to reduce the risk of your domain name being spoofed in spear phishing attacks. For example, these allow you to whitelist email domains, prevent known spamming domains from sending emails to recipients inside the organization, and insert warning HTML signals into emails from outside domains to warn recipients about the potential for phishing.
  • Don’t Trust Links or Attachments: Don’t click on links or download attachments from unknown or untrusted sources. Even if the message appears to be from a known source, be cautious when links are shortened or appear out of context.
  • Use Multi-Factor Authentication: MFA, especially with biometrics, can add an extra layer of security to your accounts by requiring a secondary authentication method beyond a password. This can prevent everyday credential hacks by making it impossible for hackers to pass MFA login challenges.
  • Sanitize Online Professional Presence: The more information a professional shares on open networks, the more a hacker can use to craft convincing spear phishing attacks. Post only what is necessary and maintain privacy over all other accounts.
  • Use Passwordless Authentication: While passwordless (or even MFA) can’t stop human error, it can simply remove a hacker’s ability to steal credentials from a spear phishing attack.

Following these best practices can help protect yourself and your organization against spear phishing attacks.

How Is Spear Phishing Different from Other Forms of Phishing?

Spear phishing is set apart from other attacks due to its targeted nature and how sophisticated their delivery is.

Consider these different types of phishing attacks:

  • Email Phishing: This is the most common type of phishing attack, in which attackers send fraudulent emails that appear to be from legitimate sources to trick recipients into revealing sensitive information or downloading malware.
  • Smishing: This is a type of phishing attack that is carried out via SMS or other messaging apps. Attackers trick targets into revealing sensitive information or downloading malware.
  • Vishing: Voice phishing is a type of phishing attack that is carried out over the phone or via video conferencing and chat software. The attacker poses as a legitimate individual or organization and fools the target into revealing sensitive information or performing a specific action, such as transferring money.
  • Clone Phishing: In this type of attack, the attacker creates a nearly identical copy of a legitimate email or website, often using the same branding and layout. The attacker then sends the fake email or link to the target, hoping to trick them into revealing sensitive information.

Spear phishing, and the closely-related threat of “whaling” (or spear phishing that targets high-level executives) can use different kinds of technical approaches like those listed above, layered with the added research and targeting tactics that make these attack vectors more dangerous.

Thwart Spear Phishing Attempts with 1Kosmos Passwordless Authentication

One of the best ways to shortcut successful phishing attacks is to eliminate the need for passwords. While this isn’t foolproof, cutting out the password part of authentication can make it extremely difficult for attackers to access a system.

That’s where 1Kosmsos BlockID comes in. With 1Kosmos, you get the benefits of strong biometric authentication, compliant identity verification, decentralized identity management, and streamlined user onboarding.

With 1Kosmos, you can utilize the following features:

  • Identity-Based Authentication: We push biometrics and authentication into a new “who you are” paradigm. BlockID uses biometrics to identify individuals, not devices, through credential triangulation and identity verification.
  • Identity Proofing: BlockID verifies identity anywhere, anytime and on any device with over 99% accuracy.
  • Privacy by Design: Embedding privacy into the design of our ecosystem is a core principle of 1Kosmos. We protect personally identifiable information in a distributed identity architecture and the encrypted data is only accessible by the user.
  • Private and Permissioned Blockchain: 1Kosmos protects personally identifiable information in a private and permissioned blockchain, encrypts digital identities, and is only accessible by the user. The distributed properties ensure no databases to breach or honeypots for hackers to target.
  • Interoperability: BlockID can readily integrate with existing infrastructure through its 50+ out-of-the-box integrations or via API/SDK.

If you’re ready to learn about BlockID and how it can help you remain compliant and secure, read more about our Passwordless Enterprise solutions. Make sure you sign up for the 1Kosmos email newsletter for updates on products and events.

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Meet the Author

Javed Shah

Former Senior Vice President Of Product Management

Javed has spent his entire twenty year career designing and building blockchain and identity management solutions. He has led large customer facing pre-sales teams, led product management for identity management platforms like the ForgeRock Identity Platform and the ForgeRock Identity Cloud. Javed has an MBA from UC Berkeley.