Learn All about Spear Phishing Attacks and How to Protect Yourself
By Nick Anderson 12 minutes
Phishing accounts for 90% of data breaches, let that sink in before you start reading on. Spear Phishing is a targeted attempt to steal an individual’s crucial data for malicious reasons. This medium of cyber-crime is normally in the form of emails or electronic communications and is a scam targeted towards a specific organization, business or individual. It began as the infamous Nigerian Prince Scams during the nineties but since then has transformed into much more detailed and researched attacks.
The perpetrator intends to steal data for malicious purposes or to embed malware on a targeted user’s device. These attackers disguise themselves as a trustworthy source in order to acquire a targeted user’s sensitive information. Spear Phishing is considered to be one of the most effective ways hacker use to obtain information, it actually accounts for 91% of global attacks. In simple words, this form of cyber-crime is extremely dangerous and it should not be taken lightly.
What Is the Difference Between Spear Phishing and Phishing?
The main difference between phishing and spear phishing is the fact that Phishing generally targets large numbers of relatively low yield targets. In simple terms this attempt tries to snare as many companies and people as possible. It normally involves automated programs to gather crucial information via faux log in pages, email services, crypto-mining malware and ransomware.
Phishing campaigns are normally straight forward and are specifically targeting a business or individual. While Spear phishing campaigns are much more complicated and detailed, these targeted attempts can range from sending documents with malware embedded into the file to infiltrating payment systems. Some campaigns even involve social engineering to a certain extent and the results can be devastating, depending on the payload of the attack. Since Spear Phishing is directed towards a single individual or an organization, the campaign is modified accordingly.
These campaigns are implemented with meticulous attention to detail and each aspect of the attack is predetermined. A spear Phishing campaign is always well thought out and varies depending on the intended target. One of the most common methods of spear phishing is sending emails which look legitimate but is actually the work of a fraudulent party trying to obtain sensitive information. Due to the personal nature of these emails, it can be impossible to identify phishing attacks.
How Does Spear Phishing Work and How Has It Evolved Over Time
As mentioned before Spear Phishing attacks started decades ago and with time these targeted attacks have evolved into strategic campaigns which can hoodwink even the most well versed digital security professional. The transformation of Spear Phishing has been both impressive and scary as these campaigns have become extremely innovative and articulate. The very first spear phishing attacks were reported back in 2010 and within a span of a year, these attacks actually grew by 300%! Yes, you read that right, spear phishing grew at an exponential rate.
The very first orchestrated attack was targeted towards four individuals of the RSA. The attack itself was simple yet devastating, all the victim did was download an excel spreadsheet and provide the hacker with access to the corporate network. The hacker had embedded the excel sheet with a Trojan horse and then followed an APT movement to steal administrators credentials and gain access to sensitive information. The next public spear phishing attack was targeted towards Government and scientific research organizations. The Kaspersky lab discovered a cyber espionage which was targeting high profile government officials, each victim had simply downloaded a seemingly innocent file.
Recently, one of the most notable spear phishing attacks was against Anthem which currently the second largest health insurer in the United States. Hackers had gained access to sensitive information of clients such as social security number, birth details, physical addresses and email addresses. These hackers were quite creative, as they constructed legitimate emails containing stolen information in order to manipulate users. Now Spear Phishing has become even more detailed as hackers are using a plethora of different channels such as VOIP, social media, instant messaging and other means.
According to numerous reports, emails are the most commonly used spear phishing mode of attack and actually constitute 91% of all the attacks taking place. To make matters worse, one attack was actually targeted towards the U.S Department of Energy and was orchestrated in order to harvest sensitive nuclear weapon related information. Even though this attempt was unsuccessful, it opened the world’s eyes as Spear Phishing has the capacity of infiltrating nuclear related information! These attacks have moved well beyond the penetration into our infrastructure as they now have everything they need to effectively implement a Spear Phishing attack. These hackers are now using social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, twitter and other platforms to obtain their targets sensitive information.
Just take a step back and think how much can a person learn about you by simply checking out your social media platforms? Even if you have strict access settings in place, these individuals will find a way to hoodwink users to believe that they are a familiar acquaintance and will manipulate their target with a dangerous level of psychological expertise. In most cases the victim never even realizes that they are being targeted until the damage is done and unfortunately mitigating Phishing attacks damage is next to impossible. Once the hacker gains the information they need, there is no stopping them.
If we consider the statistics and data of phishing attacks, you can clearly see a dramatic shift in the strategies these hackers are using. These stats enunciate the fact that spear phishing attacks are increasing and these attempts are becoming more successful and dangerous. Even the most elaborate and complicated digital security setups can easily be thwarted by a successful spear phishing attack.
Common examples of Spear Phishing attacks
Before we discuss different techniques to defend yourself or corporate network from spear phishing attacks it is very important that you identify the channels these hackers use. To make this possible, we have articulated a list of all the different channels hackers use to Spear Phish.
- They create email addresses which are similar to their target’s company. They can even create exact replicas using apps which provide temporary email services.
- Hackers personalize their emails, instead of sending the same content to different people. Each email is written in accordance to the target.
- These hackers will conduct thorough research to find which people to target. They will gather as much information as possible via social media sites and other platforms.
- Hackers will normally target individuals who have access to more information. For instance they would hack a manager’s data rather than an office clerk.
- Hackers will imitate and copy their targeted companies’ tone of voice and communication format to make sure their targets have no idea that something shady is going on.
How to Prevent Spear Phishing Attacks
Avoiding Spear Phishing attacks requires a combination of technology and general digital security awareness. Rest assured, with the right amount of digital security training and certain protocols, you can easily protect yourself and your business from spear phishing attacks. To make this possible, we have articulated a detailed list of measures you can take to prevent Spear Phishing attacks.
1. Harness the Power of Artificial Intelligence
Your best line of defense against any type of phishing attack is making use of artificial intelligence. Now there are many different software programs which are brilliantly engineered to scan each file before a user can download it. These features work in the background and scan each file before you can download or share them. If the software detects any anomaly, it will immediately notify the user and halt the download. The tools are the only way you can detect malicious content as these are designed to appear normal to users. Without these tools, it can be impossible to detect malware or malicious code embedded in files, so make sure you equip your team with the latest tools.
2. Stop Relying On Traditional Security
As mentioned before, power house companies and government bodies have been infiltrated and corrupted using Spearing Phishing attacks. This should give you an idea that even the most powerful security measures can be useless against spear phishing attacks as these campaigns utilize channels with the least security measures in place. It is important to understand that generic blacklisting will not detect or protect your network from zero-day links present in these attacks. You should sit down with your IT team and determine which measures can be put into place, simply to thwart Phishing attacks. Developing your own measures and protocols particularly to prevent Spear Phishing attacks is crucial if you want to successfully protect your network from hackers.
3. Instill Account Takeover Protection
A normal sized business will have many different accounts for their employees and it can be very difficult to keep track of these accounts. Most companies completely forget about accounts that were previously provided to their employees and the most they do is deactivate the account. However, deactivating the account will not stop a hacker from reactivating the account and deceiving other employees. There are countless spear phishing attacks which have been perpetrated via accounts which have been deactivated. So make sure your business keeps a detailed list of all the accounts being used and flag the ones which have been deactivated. There are countless tools which can help you keep track of these accounts by creating an email address online report and help avoid spear phishing attacks.
4. Make sure you implement DMARC authentication and reporting
Besides emails, hackers use domain spoofing and brand hijacking to orchestrate the attacks. These hackers unlawfully mimic or copy your brands identity to manipulate employees to provide crucial information. For instance, these hackers can spoof your domain and rage havoc against your company without you ever realizing that something is wrong.
Even the most proficient digital security professionals cannot detect domain spoofing without the right tools. This is exactly why it is imperative that your team starts using DMARC authentication to prevent domain spoofing and brand hijacking. With DMARC authentication it is simply impossible for a hacker to spoof your domain or hijack your brand for impersonation campaigns. We would recommend using Multi factor authentication for all your accounts, as simple as this may seem, it is extremely potent in preventing unlawful access attempts
5. Train all of your employees
It is very important to understand that no matter what steps or measures you take to protect your business from Spear Phishing attacks, they are all useless unless your team understands why these protocols are in place or how to identify spear phishing attacks. For instance, even if you deploy the aforementioned techniques, a hacker can still infiltrate your network if they manage to hoodwink a single employee. This is exactly why it is imperative that you train each employee and make them understand how dangerous spear phishing attacks. Your compliance policies should outline how employees should protect their data and avoid falling for any types of phishing attacks. Simply telling your employees, that they will be held accountable is enough to create effective awareness.
6. Conduct proactive investigations
Most companies do not even detect a spear phishing attack until it is too late. This makes it impossible to mitigate the damage or prevent the hacker from obtaining more information. These attacks are so personalized that victims never even realize that they are actually aiding a hacker and might not even report them. As a proactive measure, you should conduct continuous investigations to make sure employees are adhering to compliance policies. Some companies have even created their own phishing stimulations to see how their employees react to these attempts. This is ethical and is one of the most effective ways a company can check the integrity of their network against spear phishing attacks.
Lastly but certainly not the least, you should combine technology solutions and corporate policies to ensure maximum data loss prevention. Your business will have to work as a team and each employee has to understand the role they play in safe guarding the companies’ sensitive information. One breach can result in the foreclosure of even the most profitable business. Spear Phishing attacks are real and you should do everything in your power to protect your business and yourself from these attacks.