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Spear phishing – what is it and how does it threaten your company?


Phishing is one of the most popular cyber threats that companies face. Hackers like to craft deceptive messages because it is highly effective, relatively inexpensive, and easy to execute. Recipients often lack sufficient knowledge to spot the deception, and even if they do, they may become less vigilant due to fatigue or an overload of responsibilities. This method of data theft is constantly evolving, which is why organizations must be prepared to deal with various types of phishing.


One such type is spear phishing, which targets specific individuals. What is it, and how can it pose a threat to a company? Find out in our article.


What is spear phishing?


Imagine the internet as an immense sea filled with various creatures of different sizes, representing all its users. The size of these creatures depends on the extent of valuable data they have access to. Tiny fish represent private individuals, while larger ones symbolize employees and managers of small to medium-sized companies. In between, there are enormous fish, representing those who handle data in large enterprises.


On the other hand, a hacker is like an experienced fisherman who is determined to catch a delicious prize, which, in this case, means obtaining valuable data. Some cybercriminals sit by the sea, casting their fishing line (phishing email) and patiently waiting, trying to catch anything they can. This is what classic phishing looks like, sent to many unspecified recipients. However, other hackers have a preference for a specific type of fish, usually the bigger ones. They don't use a fishing line but wield a spear (or harpoon, if you will). They scour the sea until their desired target appears beneath the surface. Then, they hunt it down.


This is precisely what spear phishing is. It's a type of phishing with a more targeted and personalized approach. It doesn't aim at random individuals but specific persons, groups, or organizations. As a result, it requires hackers to put in more effort and finesse than classic phishing, but it also proves to be significantly more effective.


What is spear phishing?


Spear phishing is a scam belonging to the realm of social engineering, where universal mechanisms directing human psychology are used to obtain data through deception. Spear phishing leverages time pressure and/or authority to manipulate the targeted individual into reacting exactly as the perpetrator desires.


Initially, the hacker carefully selects their target, like scanning the sea. They choose a specific person, organization, or a particular group within an organization (e.g., IT administrators of a company) and focus their efforts on them. It is crucial that the chosen targets have access to critical corporate data (including login credentials) or hold decision-making authority within the company (e.g., able to authorize a transfer).


The second step involves thorough and in-depth research. The criminal prepares for the hunt and sharpens their spear. They gather as much information as possible about the victim's personal and professional life to know precisely how to strike. The level of detail in the acquired information may vary depending on whether the attacker targets a single individual or a larger group.


Once the hacker has the necessary content, they take a firm swing and throw the spear, meaning they prepare and send a personalized, thus highly credible message (most often an email) to the target. They impersonate a familiar sender, such as a bank, client, employee from another department, or a superior.


This cunningly crafted message manipulates the recipient into taking an action that leads the cybercriminal to acquire company data. For example, the message may persuade the recipient to log in to their corporate account using a provided link. As the sender includes information in the email that a random person would not typically know (such as a personal detail about the victim), the recipient perceives the email as authentic and falls for the scam. Thus, the hacker-fisherman successfully hooks the chosen fish and reels it in, eager to access the data.


Why is spear phishing dangerous for a company?


Phishing is becoming a topic of increasing concern. In some organizations, employees participate in IT security training to recognize such threats. They are aware that they need to approach suspicious emails with caution, especially those containing typos and grammatical errors.


Unfortunately, spear phishing is much more sophisticated. Cybercriminals devote a significant amount of time and effort to perfecting each sent message from every angle. Moreover, thanks to their reconnaissance work, they know enough about the victim to sound credible and successfully impersonate a different sender. Consequently, they can deceive even someone with a vast knowledge of cyber threats, ultimately extracting highly valuable corporate data, such as bank account logins and passwords, leading to the depletion of the company account.


Perpetrators using spear phishing techniques can also convince the victim to download an attachment, resulting in the installation of malicious software on the company's computer. If not quickly detected, this malware can collect and transmit all information typed and entered on the device, including sensitive data, over extended periods.


How to protect your company from spear phishing?


First and foremost, take the same protective measures as you would against regular phishing: be cautious with every message, especially those creating a sense of urgency or relying on authority, or requiring the download of an attachment or clicking on a link. Additionally, increase your vigilance and be suspicious even of convincingly-sounding emails supposedly from colleagues, clients, or banks.


A simple yet highly effective solution is to verify messages. If you are unsure whether an email was genuinely sent by someone you know, contact them through another channel and ask. At worst, you'll both waste a little time, which is much better than sharing sensitive company data with a hacker.


To ensure your company's safety in the cyber realm, consider conducting a free cybersecurity audit, which will uncover security gaps. Moreover, regularly visit our blog and follow our fan page or LinkedIn profile, where we share valuable information about cyber protection.

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