Graphic representing spear phishing attack

Spear phishing

What is spear phishing?

This page explores the meaning of spear phishing: how it works, common attack methods, how to recognize it, and the steps you can take to protect your business.

What is spear phishing?

Spear phishing is a targeted form of phishing scam in which cybercriminals send highly convincing emails targeting specific individuals within an organization. Unlike broad phishing campaigns, spear phishers pretend to be entities the victim knows or trusts to trick them into sharing sensitive data, transferring funds, or downloading dangerous malware.

To manipulate unsuspecting victims, hackers are focusing their efforts on social engineering tactics to exploit human nature like the inclination to help, react to alarming cues, or trust superiors. Unfortunately, employees are often a significant vulnerability for a business, with human error being the number 1 cause of unplanned system downtime, underscoring the need for regular anti-phishing training.  


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Why is spear phishing so dangerous?

Targeted attacks like spear phishing are highly dangerous to organizations because a successful scammer can acquire sensitive corporate data, financial credentials, or even direct monetary transfers. This not only results in immediate financial and data loss but can lead to extensive fraud and a recurring series of intrusions and damages.

Skilled spear phishers utilize this initial breach to launch advanced persistent threat (APT) campaigns, which can linger undetected, causing extensive, ongoing harm. These prolonged unauthorized accesses allow hackers to navigate through network resources, often leading to further data breaches, operational disruptions, and ultimately, substantial financial and reputational impacts on the organization.

What is the difference between phishing and spear phishing?

Phishing and spear phishing are both tactics cybercriminals use to steal sensitive data and personal information. The main difference is their approach: While phishing attacks are typically generic messages sent to a large audience, spear phishing targets specific individuals, leveraging the victim's personal details to appear more convincing.

The following examples illustrate the difference between phishing and spear fishing.

Phishing example: Imagine that a cybercriminal sends out a mass email warning of a potential security breach and requesting an immediate password change. The email includes a link to a fake website mimicking a legitimate site, like a bank. Out of thousands of recipients, the attacker expects that a small percentage might believe the urgent request and enter their credentials.

Spear phishing example: In a spear phishing scenario, the attacker targets a specific employee. Using details from the employee's social media, the cybercriminal impersonates a company media manager and sends a tailored email, alluding to a recent work event and inviting the employee to click a link supposedly leading to event photos. This personalized approach makes the malicious link more convincing, increasing the likelihood the employee will inadvertently deploy malware or surrender login credentials.

comparison of spear phishing and phishing

Why is spear phishing so effective?

Phishing scams have evolved from obvious schemes like the infamous "Nigerian prince" emails to today's sophisticated, spear phishing campaigns leveraging social engineering and generative AI. These techniques enable scammers to add credibility to their deception, manipulating unsuspecting victims into complying with their seemingly innocent requests.

Here are common factors that contribute to spear phishing success:

  • Convincing brand emails: Skilled attackers craft emails mimicking reputable brands like Apple, Microsoft, or a user's banking institution, making them seem authentic.
  • Workplace trust: Emails appearing to come from trusted figures within the company, such as managers or HR representatives, create a false sense of security, credibility, and trust.
  • Fear, urgency, and intimidation: Scammers often resort to scare tactics, claiming to have compromising information or asserting immediate risks. This urgency pressures the target into quick, often thoughtless compliance with their demands.
  • Insufficient employee training: Without continuous training, employees might not recognize or report spear phishing attempts, making them susceptible targets.
  • Weak email security: Without specialized tools, native security controls fail to catch advanced spear phishing attempts, leaving businesses exposed.
  • Generative AI technology: Modern scammers use AI tools like ChatGPT to craft convincing emails that mimic human communication styles, making their phishing schemes even harder to detect.

How spear phishing works

Spear phishing works by targeting specific individuals or with tailored deceptive messages to steal confidential information, gain unauthorized access, or deploy malicious software.

Here's how the spear phishing process typically works:

  1. Research and targeting: Spear phishers first identify a target, typically someone with accessible online information. They thoroughly research the individual's online presence to glean details like their job role, coworkers, recent activities, or personal interests.
  2. Crafting the attack: Using the gathered information, attackers craft a highly convincing message or email. This message will typically impersonate a trusted entity or colleague, making it seem legitimate.
  3. Deployment: The scammer sends the deceptive message to the target. The email may include:
  • A link that installs malware on the victim's device
  • An attachment that infects the system with ransomware
  • A seemingly legitimate request for confidential information
  • A link to a decoy website where the victim enters their credentials
  1. Action: Once the target interacts with the message (for example, by clicking a link, providing requested information), the attacker can achieve their primary goal—stealing critical data, gaining unauthorized access, or installing malware or ransomware
  2. Exploitation: With the acquired access or data, the cybercriminal can then steal confidential information, commit financial fraud, or even move laterally within an organization's network, potentially leading to extensive damages.

How spear phishing scammers choose their targets

Scammers typically target specific individuals based on three primary criteria: what information a person may have access to, what information they can gather about that person, and ease of exploitation.

Based on these criteria, these three types of employees are common targets for spear phishing:

  • Employees with valuable data: Spear phishing targets are not necessarily high-level executives or decision makers, but they usually have access to valuable information. Employees in departments like accounts payable, payroll, and HR not only have access to critical data but also regularly receive a plethora of emails, making it easier for phishing emails to blend in.
  • Inexperienced employees: Scammers often target lower-level or newly onboarded employees due to their unfamiliarity with company protocols or cybersecurity best practices. They may assert false authority or urgency, capitalizing on a new employee's natural inclination to comply with perceived authority.
  • Very Attacked Persons (VAPs): Contrary to widespread belief, VIPs are not always the target of spear phishing attacks. VAPs are often more vulnerable due to abundant online personal details or a high volume of email, making deceptive emails harder to spot. Although they may not have prestigious titles, their data-rich roles in finance, HR, or administration paired with this vulnerability make them common targets for scammers.


Common examples of spear phishing attacks

CEO fraud scams

Would you say no to an urgent request from your CEO? That's what cybercriminals count on when they commit CEO fraud, also known as business email compromise (BEC) scams. In these attacks, scammers exploit respect for the workplace hierarchy, impersonating high-ranking executives to deceive finance or accounting employees into buying gift cards or transferring funds to fraudulent accounts.

Sample screen capture of phishing message

Malicious attachments and ransomware attacks

Be cautious with emails containing attachments or links—clicking them can download malware or ransomware. To verify a link's safety, hover your cursor over it to see the full URL. Remember, even trusted colleagues can unintentionally send harmful links. Always scrutinize the source and double-check the legitimacy of any link or attachment for your organization's safety.

Sample screen capture of phishing payroll message

Clone phishing attacks

Clone phishing attacks involve scammers duplicating legitimate emails with a dangerous twist. They present these as updated versions of genuine messages, subtly replacing original links or attachments with malicious ones.

Sample screen capture of phishing password reset message

Brand impersonation attacks

Attackers often mimic the communication styles and imagery of trusted brands and service providers. These deceptive emails, however, contain a critical twist: The genuine links are replaced with fraudulent ones, leading to spoofed login pages designed to steal the user's credentials.

Common brands impersonation in spear phishing attacks include delivery services, digital signature services, video-conferencing tools, banking institutions, and video-streaming platforms.

Sample screen capture of phishing password reset message

How to identify a spear phishing email

Use the following SPEAR method to quickly identify a spear phishing attempt:

Graphic showing the S.P.E.A.R. acronym meaning

Spot the sender

A common spear phishing tactic involves using deceptive domain names that closely resemble reputable businesses or organizations, except for minor differences that might go unnoticed. For instance, characters like "l" (lowercase L) and "1" (number one) might be switched to create domains  like "goog1e" or "paypa1."

It's easy to dismiss this as an obvious trick, but many vigilant users still fall for it—especially if they frequently receive genuine emails from these companies.

Peruse the subject line

Subject lines in spear phishing emails often create a sense of urgency or fear, using terms like "Urgent," "Immediate Action Required," or "Payment Overdue" to encourage hasty action from the recipient.

They might also simulate familiarity, with phrases like "Re:," "Pending Request," or "Important Follow-up," implying a pre-existing conversation or relationship. This subtler approach is part of a longer spear phishing scam, in which fraudsters nurture what feels like a genuine connection. Instead, they slowly steer their targets toward actions that could lead to devastating outcomes, with entire organizations potentially succumbing to the scammer's objectives.

Examine links or attachments

Spear phishing emails often contain malicious attachments in .zip files, .exe files, PDFs, Excel, and Word documents. Links can be just as harmful as attachments—exercise caution with forms asking for sensitive data, as they might not be as secure as they appear. Google Forms and other reputable online services are often used to gather confidential information as they bypass standard email security filters.

Assess the content

Receiving an email with your personal details doesn't guarantee the source is trustworthy. What might appear as intimate knowledge about you can often be found online. It's not difficult for cybercriminals to harvest data like addresses, family member names, phone numbers, and even pet names from public records or social media platforms.

Request confirmation

Trust your instincts. If an email raises suspicions despite seeming legitimate, take a proactive approach. Instead of replying to a dubious email, initiate a new message using previously saved contact details to confirm the email's authenticity. For added caution, call or text the sender directly using a verified number to verify any doubtful requests.

What to do if you clicked on a spear phishing link

Did you accidentally click on a phishing link? Mistakes happen, but your response is critical. Here's how to mitigate potential harm:

  • Stay calm. Keeping a clear head will help you better handle the situation.
  • Don't input data. If prompted, do not enter any information whatsoever.
  • Delete and disconnect. Delete the malicious email and disconnect from the internet to prevent further potential breaches or spreading malware.
  • Change passwords. Assume your credentials are compromised and change your passwords, preferably on a different device.
  • Alert IT. Inform your IT department immediately. They're equipped to mitigate the attack and can notify relevant authorities.
  • Run a security check. Your organization's security team should run a full system check using advanced malware protection tools to detect and remediate any threats.


How to protect against spear phishing

While no approach can assure complete immunity from cyberthreats, you can mitigate spear phishing risks by integrating advanced security tools, adopting best practices, and cultivating an informed and vigilant workforce.

Graphic showing 5 ways to prevent spear phishing

Adopt multi-factor authentication (MFA)

Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA) across your environment to significantly reduce the impact of spear phishing attacks. MFA protects your applications by requiring two or more sources of validation before granting access to users, decreasing the likelihood of spear phishing success. Even if a password is compromised in a spear phishing attack, it's useless without additional authentication steps.

Implement strict password-management policies

Nearly 50% of all data breaches involve stolen credentials. By enforcing strict password policies and educating employees on best practices, organizations can significantly lower their risk of unauthorized access and security breaches.

Here are some best practices to consider for strong password security:

  • Create long, complex passwords at least 10 characters in length
  • Require MFA to verify user identities at login
  • Require security challenge questions that ask for correct responses known to the user
  • Store passwords in a secure password management solution
  • Use biometric passwords, such as fingerprints, faces, or voices
  • Change your passwords frequently

Maintain regular backups and security patches

Consistently conducting backups and applying security patches is crucial in fortifying defenses against spear phishing attacks. Regular backups serve as your safety net, ensuring data recovery and minimizing potential losses should a breach occur.

Equally important is diligent patch management. These updates fortify your software defenses by remediating vulnerabilities that attackers could exploit through spear phishing schemes.

Install advanced email security software

As spear phishing tactics become increasingly advanced and prevalent, it's imperative to adopt proactive anti-phishing measures to safeguard your organization and its employees against data breaches, identity theft, and corporate espionage. One of the most effective defenses is to invest in a reputable email security solution.

Sophisticated email security solutions like Cisco Secure Email Threat Defense offer robust phishing protection, employing advanced algorithms that scrutinize thousands of signals across identity, behavior, and language. This system not only detects typical attack indicators transmitted by email, but it also neutralizes threats before they can inflict damage, fortifying your organization's critical communications.

Employ Advanced Malware Protection (AMP)

Because no security solution can prevent all spear phishing attacks, it's essential to layer your defenses. Advanced Malware Protection software prevents, detects, and removes software viruses that may have been installed in a successful phishing attack, such as ransomware, worms, spyware, adware, or Trojans.

By employing AMP, organizations can significantly reduce the impact of potential breaches, ensuring that even if an attack penetrates initial defenses, its effects are contained and minimized.

Prioritize security awareness training

Empowering employees with knowledge is only effective when applied consistently. Security awareness shouldn't be a one-time initiative. Given the evolving nature of spear phishing attacks and other dangerous threats, continuous employee training is essential. Integrate anti-phishing education into both the onboarding process for new recruits and as regular, updated training for existing staff. Continuous education helps employees stay ahead of spear phishing attempts, safeguarding your organization's sensitive data and systems.