The Difference Between Phishing and Spear-Phishing
- by Justice Levine
Phishing attacks are an ongoing problem for internet users, aiming to manipulate targets with promises of riches, or other cleverly worded incentives. Phishing and spear-phishing are variant forms of an email attack that typically involve opening a malicious link or attachment. The primary difference between them is a matter of targeting.
How many people can really identify phishing and spear phishing emails, as well as understand the differences between them? While the threats share similarities, they possess key differences that represent two individual modes of attack. This article will discuss methods to identify both methods in an email, as well as tips for preventing a successful attack from taking over your account.
Phishing threats from malicious actors are more likely to manipulate us out of money than hackers are. Even though hackers make more headlines these days with serious breaches of security, everyday computer users are more likely to get burned online by a convincing con artist. Phishing is a hacking technique that involves sending emails designed to manipulate a user into opening a URL that leads to a landing page impersonating a known brand, such as Microsoft. These emails are sent in mass to recipients, more or less at random, with the expectation that only a small percentage will respond. The malicious link within the email is designed to steal personal information such as login credentials. The information would then be sold on the black market or used for fraud or identity theft. Common phishing emails might say something along the lines of, “Your account is locked,” “Please update your password,” or “Please update your bank account information.”Phishing is a hacking technique that involves sending emails designed to manipulate a user into opening a URL that leads to a landing page impersonating a known brand, such as Microsoft. These emails are sent in mass to recipients, more or less at random, with the expectation that only a small percentage will respond. The malicious link within the email is designed to steal personal information such as login credentials. The information would then be sold on the black market or used for fraud or identity theft. Common phishing emails might say something along the lines of, “Your account is locked,” “Please update your password,” or “Please update your bank account information.”
Unlike spear-phishing attacks, scammers may use informal and urgent text to manipulate readers into downloading a malicious attachment, opening an unsafe link, or disclosing private information such as credit card details.
Phishing protection is one of the most important ways a business can protect itself from cyberattacks. Some examples of the different methods of phishing attacks include:
- Vishing: phishing over phone calls or downloaded internet protocols such as Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP.
- Smishing: phishing over text messages, similar to how computers and phones can be infected with malware.
- Business Email Compromise (BEC): these general phishing attempts use spoofed or hacked email addresses to lure in victims.
- Wire Transfer Phishing: this attack is geared toward bank transfers to fraudulent entities.
Spear-phishing, unlike generic phishing scams, involves a highly targeted process and aims at a single individual. Hackers do this by claiming to be someone you know and trust. Additionally, a spear-phishing attacker is after something in particular, often using a BEC attack by posing as a senior employee with the power to request wire transfers to fraudulent companies, direct deposit changes, or W2 information. To convince you they are who they claim to be, the attacker may engage in social engineering to impersonate people you know, such as colleagues or business acquaintances. The attacker will research you on the Internet and social media or gather information about you from data breaches.
Spear-phishing emails are more careful and clever in their design to get a response. Cybercriminals target an individual employee within an organization and compose a fake email specifically tailored for that person. A version of a spear-phishing email may come from your “CEO”, who says his phone, wallet, and briefcase have been stolen, and then asks you to wire a sum of money to this number. Some examples of the different methods of spear-phishing attacks include:
- Whaling Attacks: attacks aimed at senior executives or other individuals with the power to access confidential information and enable a data breach or approve a large money transfer.
- CEO Fraud: attacks against junior employees where the attacker impersonates a senior authority and then pressures the reader into taking unauthorized actions. This can be the CEO or other high-level colleagues.
Key Differences Between Phishing and Spear-Phishing
While both phishing and spear-phishing are types of social engineering attacks, there are some key differences between the two:
1. Phishing attacks are typically sent to large groups of people, while spear-phishing attacks are targeted at individuals or small groups.
2. Phishing messages are often generic and lack personalization, while spear-phishing messages may include the victim's name, company, or other personal information.
3. Phishing messages often come from spoofed email addresses, while spear-phishing messages may come from seemingly legitimate email addresses.
4. Phishing attacks typically use generic subject lines, while spear-phishing attacks may use personalized subject lines that are designed to entice the victim to open the message.
5. Phishing messages may contain typos or grammatical errors, while spear-phishing messages are often well-written and free of mistakes.
While both phishing and spear-phishing can be devastating attacks, spear-phishing is generally considered to be more dangerous because it is harder for victims to spot and more likely to result in the disclosure of sensitive information.
How To Protect Against Targeted Attacks
It only takes one mistake to infect a computer and compromise an entire organization. However, with the right tools and knowledge, invasive attacks can be prevented.
Encrypt Your Data
Should your data or device be stolen, data encryption will ensure that the attacker cannot actually access or use the data.
Use Multi-Factor Authentication
Multi-factor authentication ensures the protection of your credentials or passwords if your account is compromised. Attackers can only access your data if they’ve authorized entry on every single authentication channel.
Authenticate Your Email with DMARC, SPF, and DKIM
This prevents the main way credentials are stolen. DMARC, SPF, and DKIM are three protocols put in place for systems used to verify sender identity and confirm the legitimacy of email communications
Use strong passwords
Most people recycle passwords, which poses a serious risk. Attacks can be deterred if users develop strong password habits and tools such as password managers.
Awareness Is Important
Spear-phishing attacks are the cause of many expensive data breaches. According to the FBI’s 2021 Internet Crime Report, in 2018, BEC attacks cost American businesses $2.4 billion, while phishing attacks cost victims more than $44 million.
Using an email filter can help prevent phishing emails that contain known phishing URLs. Similarly, if an email contains an attachment with a known signature, a traditional email filter will catch it. However, if a phishing URL is an unknown threat, or if you get an email allegedly from someone you know that doesn’t contain a URL or attachment, it will pass through most filters.
Phishing and spear-phishing spearhead a dangerous and highly effective attack vector. However, defense is possible with phishing awareness training, which can help users learn to identify a phishing or spear-phishing email. In addition, businesses should consider a security solution like EnGarde Cloud Email Security from Guardian Digital to help you make email safe by defending against advanced threats like targeted spear phishing, ransomware and emerging zero-day attacks. Proactive, multi-layered supplementary email security defenses close critical loopholes in Microsoft 365 protection that are the source of many of the most serious attacks today. EnGarde is constantly learning from and adapting to the threats that challenge it, and updating its protection in real-time to remain ahead of emerging threats to prevent future attacks.
The Bottom Line
Spear-phishing is an attack that targets a specific person or organization, whereas phishing scams are mass delivered to a large number of people. While phishing attacks target anyone who might click, spear phishing attacks attempt to manipulate people who work at particular businesses in order to gain access to the business itself. Security awareness training programs provide employees with the knowledge and skills necessary to protect data are vital, especially as cyber threats continue to grow in complexity. Despite the fundamental differences between phishing and spear-phishing, the solution to both can be found in a multi-layered email security system that works harmoniously to detect and block threats in real-time, building on each other to provide stronger, more effective protection.
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