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What is a spear phishing attack?

What is Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing has been present in the digital landscape for over 20 years, but it’s only in the last 10 years that it’s started making headlines.

Primarily using email to deliver its malicious payload, spear phishing presents a very real and current threat to any business with an email account. Key to combatting the threat of phishing is by educating your business on the signs and symptoms of such an attack, so let’s take a look at what you’re up against.

Spear Phishing Techniques

A number of techniques are employed when launching a phishing technique and these can include:

  • Macros contained within Microsoft Office documents that, once activated, allow hackers to gain remote access of the infected PC
  • Tricking employees into disclosing sensitive data such as login details for company emails or databases
  • Redirecting victims to malicious websites where malware can be downloaded to their PC

What’s Different About Spear Phishing?

Phishing is frequently in the headlines, so many businesses are aware of this threat and know how to protect themselves. Spear phishing, however, is a little different.

Where phishing emails tend to target large numbers of individuals with generic content, spear phishing is a much more personalised attack. For example, rather than starting an email with “Dear Sir/Madam”, a spear phishing email will use the recipients exact name to engender trust and move the recipient closer to taking the malicious bait.

What are the Characteristics of a Spear Phishing Attack?

Phishing attacks are generally executed by sophisticated hackers, but there are still a number of telltale signs which characterise spear phishing such as:

  • Multiple Levels of Attack: Phishing attacks businesses on a number of different levels following the initial infection, so further attacks are likely to involve malware downloads, logging keystrokes and capturing screenshots.
  • A Combination of Threats: To enhance the chances of outwitting standard web defences, spear phishing incorporates a number of different techniques to deliver their payload including infected URLs, documents and unauthorised downloads.
  • Exploiting Zero Day Vulnerabilities: Spear phishing specialises in exploiting the numerous zero day vulnerabilities that can arise in browsers, apps and the various plugins that are found within desktop PCs.

Spear Phishing Examples

If you take a look at the IT headlines from the last couple of years then it doesn’t take long to find a mention of spear phishing.

In 2016, an employee of Snapchat fell victim to a spear phishing scam which involved an email being sent which claimed it was from the Snapchat CEO. Falling for the scam, the employee duly followed the request within the email and forwarded on payroll details to a spoof email address.

However, the most famous example of spear phishing is the attack launched on the US Democratic Party in 2016. Hackers sent spoof emails claiming to be from Google representatives and advising recipients to update their email passwords to strengthen security. However, the links contained within these emails merely led the victims to malicious websites which allowed the hackers to take control of their email accounts.

Rather than becoming the next victim of phishing, it’s important that you understand how such an attack is likely to be launched against your business. Knowledge is a valuable currency when it comes to cyber-attacks, so it’s crucial that you educate yourself and your employees to not only protect your sensitive data, but also maintain your productivity.