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What is Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing definition

Spear phishing is a type of phishing cyber-attack that targets a specific individual or organization rather than a broad audience. This usually involves an attacker conducting a significant amount of research on an organization or individual to make their attack seem more credible by contextualizing their message with relevant personal or corporate information. These attacks usually come in the form of email messages but ‘spear-phishing’ is a more specific way to describe a socially engineered phishing attempt that is targeted.

The goal of a spear phishing attack is to gain access to sensitive information such as credentials or compromise valuable data. This can be done purely through solicitation or through further methods of compromise such as embedding malware into a targeted system.

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What is the difference between spear phishing and phishing?

Phishing: Email phishing is one of the most common attack vectors for actors to successfully infiltrate systems. In 2022, Microsoft alone recorded over 70 billion attempts at email and identity threat attacks. Email phishing involves the process of sending a mass number of fraudulent emails, while posing as legitimate sender, to convince people to reveal sensitive information such as passwords, social security numbers, bank account information, and more. 

A phishing email might include a logo from a legitimate company or attempt to mimic the language a certain company or employee uses when they send out emails. This way, attackers can communicate to a large audience who might be familiar with this company. For example, an attacker might attempt to replicate an Amazon alert email that attempts to solicit victim’s account or credit card info. Many phishing emails also contain spoofing qualities. 

Spear phishing: Spear phishing is a more focused version of phishing that typically targets individuals with authority in an organization. In a spear phishing campaign, the attacker will research a specific organization or individual. By understanding current events, relationships, and other contextualized info, the attacker can develop a cyber-attack that mimics regular communications patterns in the organization. Doing so will make their communication attempt seem legitimate and will increase the likelihood of establishing trust between themselves and the victim party. Once trust is established, the attacker will attempt to solicit sensitive information, money, or attempt to compromise the victim’s device with malware by requesting them to share information or download malicious files.

Types of spear phishing

Business email compromise (BEC)

BEC is a type of email cyber-attack where a threat actor attempts to trick someone into sending them money or valuable information by impersonating a valuable or high-ranking individual within a business. In this scenario the goal is to compromise an account so that the attacker can continue to conduct malicious activity through legitimate account credentials.

CEO fraud

CEO fraud is a form of impersonation where a threat actor will falsify their identity, acting as a CEO at an organization and attempt to communicate with other employees, such as members of the finance department, to trick them by using a falsified version of a high-ranking official’s credentials. Often urgently requesting the transfer of money. These attacks are specifically focused on financial gain.

Executive phishing/whaling

Whaling is a heavily targeted phishing attack in which an attacker attempts to phish a high ranking official, often chief executives. These social engineering cyber-attacks contain information that is highly personalized to the intended target to encourage them to click a link that will download malware, transfer funds to the attacker, or share details that can facilitate further attacks. The effects of a successful whaling attack can be devastating, including data loss, financial loss, and reputational damage.

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Spear phishing solutions

Security Awareness Training: Organizations should implement security awareness training to keep their employees up to date on the best practices to avoid cyber risk. This involves educating users on how to recognize and avoid phishing attacks, how to create strong passwords, know what information is safe to share with people outside the company, and other practices. 

Advanced email solutions: Traditional legacy systems are not adept for fighting against spear fishing attacks because these attacks use social engineering and other techniques (further spoofed domains in their links, hidden macros in legitimate-looking attachments, and an ongoing chain of communication to build association). These are unlikely to be registered as malicious by the rules and signatures of a legacy gateway. To fight back efficiently and successfully against spear phishing attacks, organizations should consider implementing advanced email security solutions.

Email Security Vendors: Darktace’s Approach to Email Security

Darktrace’s AI email security uses artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to prevent, detect, respond to, and heal from email attacks.

Through its unique understanding of you, rather than knowledge of past attacks, Darktrace/Email stops the most sophisticated and evolving email security risks like generative Al attacks, BEC, account takeover, human error, and ransomware.

In a Self-Learning AI model, the AI has the ability to understand the business from the inside out. That way when activity within the business deviates from ‘normal', the AI can identify this behavior and alert the security team. 

AI can also use real-time data to identify and respond to threats quickly, minimizing the potential damage and saving time for security teams who usually have to parse through a high number of flagged emails. 

One of the key benefits of integrated cloud email security and AI email security is that it can detect threats that may go unnoticed by traditional security systems, which often rely on pre-defined rules and patterns to identify threats. With AI, email security can continuously learn and adapt, providing more comprehensive protection against previously unknown email-based attacks.