What’s the Difference Between Phishing and Spear-Phishing?

August. 29, 2020

6:00-7:00PM PST

Although seemingly similar in approach, phishing and spear-phishing are two distinct methods of online malicious attacks. In the process of phishing, the attacker effectively casts a net into the internet, or sends an email to a mass of people spoofing a well-known, credible brand or business. However, spear-phishing attacks are more focused and personal, targeting a very specific user by pretending to be a trusted individual or organization. And so, phishing and spear-phishing are quite different from one another. Understanding the distinction between each mode of attack will help users to better detect and prevent them. 

What is Spear-Phishing?

Often malicious in intent, spear-phishing is a pinpointed attack on a particular user that aims to steal valuable, personal data like account credentials or banking information. By impersonating a trusted individual or organization via email or an alternative online messenger application, malicious actors can obtain personal details specific to the user such as their hometown, place of work, frequented locations, and recent purchases made online. The aim of such an attack is to 1. infect a device with a form of malicious software or 2. trick users into turning over credentials, personal information, or money.

How Does Spear Phishing Work?

Over the course of the past several years, spear-phishing emails have made great advances. Today, tracking such malicious emails can be incredibly arduous if the user lacks prior knowledge of and how to protect themselves against spear-phishing. Targeting users who share sensitive, personal information online, spear-phishing attackers scan social networking platforms for individual profiles. From such profiles, spear-phishing attackers will be able to discover an individual’s email address, geographic location, friends list, and any posts regarding recently purchased tech gadgets like computers or smartphones. After obtaining this information, attackers might pose as the user’s friend, family member, or a trusted organization, sending the user a fraudulent, yet compelling message.

 

In an effort to boost the success rates of spear-phishing attacks, the messages that malicious actors send to unsuspecting individuals typically involve intense explanations on why the requested information is so direly needed. A victim of such an attack might be urged to open a malicious attachment or to click on a link, sending them straight to a spoofed website that will require them to share personal, sensitive credentials for a number of websites. This will empower the attacker to utilize the user’s passwords to access any number of websites, enabling them to view the user’s confidential information -- most likely credit card information and Social Security Numbers. And once a sufficient amount of personal information is collected, the attacker will be able to gain access to bank accounts or even produce entirely new identities. Alternatively, through the act of spear-phishing, users can be convinced to download malware or dangerous codes as a result of clicking on attachments or links included in spear-phishing emails and messages.

Phishing vs Spear-Phishing

Phishing and spear-phishing are often confused for one another, as they are both types of web-based attacks performed with the goal of acquiring confidential data from a specific individual. However, it is critical to distinguish between the two. A much broader term used to categorize any attempt to persuade users into sharing delicate data like usernames, passwords, financial information, etc. to be used for nefarious purposes, phishing attacks are typically not specific to the individual user. Phishing attacks tend to be distributed to masses of people simultaneously. And through email, social media, phone calls (sometimes referred to as voice-phishing or “vishing”), and text messages (sometimes referred to as SMS-phishing or “smishing”), phishing attackers will impersonate credible organizations or companies. Overall, the intention of a phishing attack is “to send a spoofed email (or other communication) that looks as if it is from an authentic organization to a large number of people, banking on the chances that someone will click on that link and provide their personal information or download malware.”

 

On the other hand, spear-phishing attacks are specific, targeting a particular user with unique, personalized messages tailored to best trick that individual. These messages are disguised, appearing as though they have been sent by an individual or entity familiar to the user. Often including personal information specific to the user, spear-phishing attempts  -- more often than not -- necessitate massive amounts of time and thought, especially when compared to phishing. This is very much due to the fact that gathering more of the user’s personal information serves to make spear-phishing emails appear to be more believable and well-founded. And the more distinctive and individualized a spear-phishing attempt is, the higher the attacker’s chance of successfully tricking their victim is. Moreover, however illegitimate, the personal nature of such emails makes detecting spear-phishing attacks incredibly difficult -- especially when compared to phishing attacks carried out on a large scale. So, although spear-phishing attacks certainly require more work, they are becoming increasingly prevalent as a result of their ability to skillfully fool recipients.

Avoid Spear-Phishing Attacks

Falling prey to a spear-phishing attack can put one’s utmost confidential and personal information in the hands of a malicious actor. Thankfully, there are several steps that individuals can take to steer clear of these destructive, dangerous online threats.

Be Careful of the Personal Information You Share Online

It is imperative that users exercise an abundance of caution when sharing personal information online. As social networking platforms continue to gain momentum and experience consistent growth in popularity, online profiles only create less work for malicious actors looking to carry out spear-phishing attacks. Users are encouraged to evaluate their social media profiles and consider how much of their own personal information is readily available for potential attackers to view and utilize for the purpose of manipulation. If there is something that you would not want a potential attacker to access, it is advised that you either avoid posting or ensure that privacy settings are configured in a way that restricts what others -- specifically those you are not friends with -- can see.

Create Complex, Intelligent Passwords

The first step to protecting your online accounts is to create and implement complex, intelligent passwords that would be extremely difficult for anyone other than yourself to figure out. Furthermore, users are urged to avoid using one password or nearly identical passwords with slight modifications across all owned online accounts. Reused passwords or minorly varied passwords make a potential hacker’s job much less difficult. In this situation, if a single password is obtained by a malicious actor, they can successfully gain access to any number of that specific user’s accounts. Thus, all of the passwords a user creates should be unique and elaborate, as well as specific to each particular platform. The most secure passwords will include elements like numbers, random phrases, and both capital and lowercase letters.

Update Software Regularly

Another way to avoid spear-phishing attacks is to stay on top of any and all software updates. Users are strongly encouraged to frequently perform software updates, specifically when notified of a new software update by their software provider. This is because many software updates also contain software security updates, which help to secure systems and provide safeguards against common attacks. To ensure that software is always as up to date as possible, users are advised to enable automatic software updates when given the option to do so.

Refrain From Clicking Links in Emails

Users are strongly urged to steer clear of clicking links included in email messages. To avoid potential spear-phishing attacks, users should launch their browser and visit the entity or organization’s site directly. Another option for avoiding spear-phishing email attempts is to hover your mouse over a link. This will expose the link’s true destination, allowing the user to better determine if it is, in fact, malicious. URLs that do not properly match up with the link’s anchor text or email’s supposed destination are likely to be malicious. However, in an attempt to better fool the user, a lot of spear-phishing attackers will try to confuse and disguise link destinations, creating anchor text that appears to be a legitimate URL.

Use Your Best Judgement When Opening Emails

Users should always trust their instincts and logic when opening emails. An email that appears to be sent by a “friend” that requests a user’s personal information or credentials should be approached carefully. Users are advised to double-check that the email address the sender has used is one that their friend has used previously. Additionally, actual businesses would never send an email requesting an individual’s username and password. In either of these scenarios, the user should contact the friend or organization in question directly -- offline. Another option would be to visit the business’s official website to verify whether or not they were the entity that truly attempted to make contact.

Put a Data Protection Program Into Action

Organizations are highly encouraged to put a data protection program into action to help all employees to best avoid potential spear-phishing attacks, as well as other common online attacks. To best prevent data loss from such attacks, a data protection program would integrate user education regarding recommended data security procedures along with a robust data protection solution. Business entities can greatly benefit from installing data loss prevention software, like that provided by Trustifi -- the easiest, most comprehensive email security solution on the market -- to adequately protect their valuable data from unapproved access, misuse, and departure. Such software would offer companies protection in the event that an employee is fooled by a spear-phishing attack.

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