What Is Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing is a social engineering technique that malicious individuals use to trick targeted individuals into providing sensitive information, usually via email.

Written by Katlyn Gallo
Published on Dec. 21, 2022
What Is Spear Phishing?
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
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Spear phishing, much like regular phishing, involves email messages that contain URLs or attachments a recipient is pressured to click on. Spear phishing differs from phishing in that recipients are typically targeted because they’re affiliated with a specific organization.

Threat actors that leverage spear phishing in their cyberattacks do so to gain sensitive information including usernames and passwords, banking information, sensitive documents, intellectual property or proprietary data, and more. Spear phishing is one of the top techniques used in cyberattacks due to its high success rate in obtaining profitable information.

Spear Phishing vs. Standard Phishing

Much like regular phishing, spear phishing involves email messages that contain URLs or attachments a recipient is pressured to click on. Spear phishing differs from phishing in that recipients are typically targeted because they’re affiliated with a specific organization. Phishing is performed like spear phishing but is a more generic approach where an attacker sends out phishing emails to a large list of individuals with no commonality. This method targets random people whose email addresses were publicly available, usually due to a data breach. 

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How Does Spear Phishing Work?

Spear phishing requires some due diligence on the attacker's part prior to sending out an email campaign. First, attackers use open source intelligence (OSINT) to gather information on their target. For example, attackers may use LinkedIn to identify employees and their roles within a company. Once they’ve performed reconnaissance and better understand their target, they craft an email that closely aligns with the target’s day-to-day business and the types of email their employees might receive. This is the most important part since the ultimate goal of spear phishing is to make the email believable enough that the recipient(s) respond with information or click on malicious URLs or attachments.

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How to Identify Spear Phishing

There are several parts of an email you should check when trying to determine if a message is legitimate:

  • Sender address:  Oftentimes the email display name will be spoofed to make it seem like a trusted source. Checking the actual sender address can help identify the true source of the email.
  • Message:  Be on the lookout for misspellings, grammatical errors, words that express urgency or a change in the typical message format. 
  • Hyperlinks and Attachments:  If you weren’t expecting a link or attachment, don’t click on either before verifying it’s from a trusted source. For links, review the URL to confirm whether the domain is what you would expect. For attachments, it’s always best to scan them prior to opening them using an online tool or antivirus product.
What Is Spear Phishing? | Video: Washington Post

 

How Does Spear Phishing Differ From Standard Phishing Attacks? 

Spear phishing is one type of social engineering technique attackers use to gain information, but there are a few other similar methods they can use in the same ways. Phishing, smishing, vishing and whaling are all methods malicious actors employ to steal information from those they are able to trick into providing it. 

Phishing is performed like spear phishing but is a more generic approach where an attacker sends out phishing emails to a large list of individuals with no commonality. This method targets random people whose email addresses were publicly available, usually due to a data breach. 

Smishing and vishing are social engineering techniques that use SMS text or phone calls, respectively, rather than email. 

Whaling, the most targeted type of phishing, targets high-profile individuals like C-level executives, executive committee members or government officials. Whaling is the most complex and sophisticated social engineering method because it requires patience and creativity from the attacker’s end. To successfully execute a whaling attack, a malicious individual must gain their target’s trust, which they usually do by carefully integrating information gleaned from public sources that can be used to persuade the “whale” into offering up sensitive information that they otherwise wouldn’t provide.

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