Spear Phishing Definition | What Is Spear Phishing?

Table of Contents

Spearphishing scam

Spear Phishing Definition

Spear phishing is a cyber-attack that tricks a victim into revealing confidential information. Anyone can be a target of a spearphishing attack. Criminals may target government employees or private companies. Spear phishing attacks pretend to come from a colleague or friend of the victim. These attacks can even mimic email templates from well-known companies. The goal of a phishing attack is to get the victim to click a link or download a file and reveal valuable info.
A good number of spear-phishing attacks are government-sponsored. Sometimes, attacks come from cybercriminals who sell the information to governments or corporations. A successful spear-phishing attack on a company or government can lead to a hefty ransom. Big companies such as Google and Facebook have lost money to these attacks. About three years ago, BBC reported that both companies were swindled of a sum of about $100 million each by a single hacker.

How is Spear Phishing different from Phishing?

Although phishing and spear-phishing are similar in their goals they otherwise wouldn’t, they are different in method. Phishing attacks are a one-off attempt targeted at a large group of people. It’s done with off-the-shelf applications designed for that purpose. These attacks don’t take much skill to carry out.
Spear phishing attacks are much more sophisticated. They are usually targeted at specific employees, companies, or organizations. Unlike generic phishing emails, spear-phishing emails look like they come from a legit contact. This could be a project manager or a team lead. Targets are planned and well researched. A spear-phishing attack is usually the beginning of a much larger attack on a company. 
After obtaining the victim’s credentials, the attacker can steal more personal or financial info. This includes bank info, social security numbers, and credit card numbers. Spear phishing requires more research on their victims to penetrate their defenses successfully.

How does a Spear Phishing attack work?

Before cybercriminals carry out spear-phishing attacks, they research their targets. During this process, they find their targets’ emails, job titles, and colleagues. Some of this information is on the website of the company the target works at. They find more info by going through the target’s LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook. 
After gathering info, the cybercriminal moves on to crafting their message. They create a message that looks like it’s coming from a familiar contact of the target, such as a team lead, or a manager. There are several ways the cybercriminal could send the message to the target. Emails are used because of their frequent use in corporate environments. 
Spear-phishing attacks should be easy to identify because of the email address in use. The attacker can’t have the same address as the one owned by the person the attacker is posing as. To fool the target, the attacker spoofs the email address of one of the target’s contact. This is done by making the email address look as similar to the original as possible. They could replace an “o” with a “0” or lowercase “l” with an uppercase “I”, and so on. This, coupled with the fact that the content of the email looks legitimate, makes it difficult to identify a spear-phishing attack.
The email sent usually contains a file attachment or a link to an external website that the target could download or click. The website or file attachment would contain malware. The malware executes once it downloads onto the target’s device. The malware establishes communication with the cybercriminal’s device. Once this begins it can log keystrokes, harvest data, and do what the programmer commands.

Who needs to worry about Spear Phishing attacks?

Everyone needs to be on the lookout for spear phishing attacks. Some categories of people are more likely to be attacked than others. People who have high-level jobs in industries such as healthcare, finance, education, or the government have a greater risk. A successful spear phishing attack on any of these industries could lead to:

  • A data breach
  • Large ransom payments
  • National Security threats
  • Loss of reputation
  • Legal repercussions


You can’t avoid getting phishing emails. Even if you use an email filter, some spearphishing attacks will come through.

The best way you can handle this is by training employees on how to spot spoofed emails.


How can you prevent Spear Phishing attacks?

There are several steps you can take to prevent spear phishing attacks. Below is a list of preventive and protective measures against spear-phishing attacks:
  • Avoid putting up too much information about yourself on social media. This is one of the first stops of a cybercriminal to fish for information about you.
  • Make sure the hosting service you use has email security and anti-spam protection. This serves as the first line of defense against a cybercriminal.
  • Do not click on links or file attachments until you are sure of the source of the email.
  • Be wary of unsolicited emails or emails with urgent requests. Try to verify such a request through another means of communication. Give the suspected person a phone call, text, or talk face to face.
Organizations need to educate their employees on spear-phishing tactics. This helps employees know what to do when they encounter a spear-phishing email. This is education can be achieved with a Spear Phishing Simulation.
One way you can teach your employees how to avoid spear-phishing attacks is through phishing simulations.

A spear-phishing simulation is an excellent tool for getting employees up to speed on the spear-phishing tactics of cybercriminals. It is a series of interactive exercises designed to teach its users how to identify spear-phishing emails to avoid or report them. Employees who are exposed to spear-phishing simulations have a much better chance of spotting a spear-phishing attack and reacting appropriately. It is therefore encouraged for institutions and companies prone to cyber-attacks to consider incorporating them into their cybersecurity training.

Why would I want to simulate a Phishing attack?

Frequently running spear phishing simulations teach employees to be more aware of the many types of targeted attacks frequently utilized by spear phishing attackers, and train employees to react safely and appropriately to targeted spear phishing attacks before they happen in the real world.