What is a Spear Phishing Attack & How to Prevent One?
Spear Phishing Definition
In a cyber security context, spear-phishing is all about using social engineering methods to lure an individual or a group of people and force them to share sensitive data. The prime targets may get their following (or more) details compromised:
- Bank details (useful for proceeding with transactions)
- Customer data
- Passwords, PIN, etc.
Access to these essential details grants superiority to the threat actor and paves the path for further damage.
For instance, banking information embezzlement might lead to monetary losses. The general trick to carry out such a successful attack is through a legitimate-looking email. However, few hackers use or send instant messages and SMSs as well.
Spear phishing attacks in action
The cyber-attack functions through phishing the victim. Hence, its modus operandi is very much customized and person-specific. Also, the strategy of attack is designed in a way that the target fails to spot its ill intent. It’s presented like a genuine and authentic request or response. It takes tons of effort and skills to fabricate such a perfect and authentic-looking spear-phishing attack.
Here is a crisp overview of how it works:
- Research and identification of the victim
The very basic step that a hacker takes is to do extensive attacker research and spotting. Hackers have to find someone who is easy prey. For instance, new employees, retired personnel, young adults that are not very much aware of threats in the digital world, and so on.
Means are creating fake SM handles/profiles and imposing as a representative of a trusted company are used to search for potential victims. With these methods, hackers try to seize some specific information that could help him fool or convince the target easily.
If it’s hard to acquire certain information, hackers can take the help of the dark web. Many hackers release stolen data on the dark web for free. Some even sell them at peanut’s cost. The data is acquired from old/recent successful attempts.
Anyhow, spear-phishing attackers require capturing very distinct customer information for a successful attack.
- Crafting personalized messages
Aftering picking a person/group and doing a case study of how to fool him, the next step is to create a messages with a personal touch. It could be an email, text message, or instant/social-media message. Email is the commonest method.
The sender will try to keep it as personal as possible. For instance, if a new employee has posted on Instagram that s/he has been selected to be a part of a Singapore-based client visit, the hacker can draft his content around the same details.
The email might contain a link to complete the registration or check the visit status. Adding such personal and critical information makes the email look authentic. To give emails a more authentic look, attackers might use the spoofing technique.
- Hooking a victim
The email is then shared with the aimed individual. If the victim failed to spot the ill-will of the hacker and trusted the email, the attack is successful.
Based on the intent of the attacker, the victim might end up losing crucial bank data, installing malware on the device, and even draining the bank balance. Because of the personalization of the email, victims fail to spot the spear-phishing attack and get trapped.
An imposter took the help of the public image of Jeff Bezos and the popularity of Twitter to fool people in 2020. It was figured out that a skilled hacker could enter nearly 45 top and authentic Twitter accounts and carried an open bitcoin scam with the help of spear phishing.
The cybercriminal posted from Jeff Bezos’s account that people will get bitcoins in their account and attached a malicious link in the tweet.
As the tweet was from a blue-ticked account of a famous personality, people believed in it and clicked on the link. The attack was successful in every sense. The hacker took the details of verified accounts by posing as an IT staff and tricked Twitter. Those who clicked on the link end up exposing their valuable data/info to attackers. Further investigation revealed that the hacker used the phone spear-phishing technique to carry out the entire attack.
That’s not the only example. There are many more spear phishing examples out there. Spear phishing is very common and is causing huge damage to the persons involved.
How is it different from Standard Phishing & Whaling?
Though closely related, all these terms are not synonymous to each other. Having clarity is essential so that one can differentiate between them and implement a targeted prevention strategy immediately.
Spear phishing vs phishing
While the methods of luring the target are the same in both these attacks, the aim is different. Standard technique uses bulk emailing to increase the success rate. Spear-phishing is a targeted method, so corrupted emails are shared only with hand-picked people/accounts.
Phishing emails don’t feature any personal details while spear-phishing emails are specially curated and will include personal details.
Spear Phishing vs Whaling
Whaling is a more accurate/narrow variant of spear phishing. Targets in such an attack are ‘whales’, i.e. top decision-makers like CFOs. CEOs, directors, and VPs of a company. Spear phishing is also targeted but the target here could belong to any group or profile.
What helps protect from spear phishing - Tips
As the cyber attack demands due diligence and some expert methods, here is a quick overview of the most viable ways to spear-phishing prevention tricks:
- Spread cybersecurity awareness
The very first and essential spear phishing prevention tip is to make your staff aware of the consequences of spear phishing. Bring the spear-phishing method into their knowledge so that they can sense the presence of spear-phishing attempts around them and take preventive actions immediately.
- 2FA deployment
Strong passwords are not enough to deal with this phishing attack type. An advanced approach like 2FA is required to control the spread of spear phishing. In this method, two or more login methods are clubbed. More commonly, OTP or cryptographic token methods are combined with login methods. These details are shared on the physical devices linked with the email. This assures you that one security method is active even when the password is compromised.
- Use anti-virus software
It’s not easy for the human eye to scan what’s inside an email before opening it. But, the advanced scanning technology of anti-virus software will do it instantly. Hence, it’s wise to use this software. Without your involvement, it will spot the presence of any spyware or malware that an email or SMS might contain. The best ones are capable of providing real-time notifications and alerts.
- Adopt the best password management policies
Hackers know that people are lazy when it comes to password management. This is why they use this weakness for their benefit. Implementation of robust credential safety related management policies such as using password-storing software, stopping sharing the password with others, taking the help of a password generator tool, and changing passwords after a certain time is proven to be highly useful to control the spear-phishing attack.
- Use the email verification system
As quoted above, emails are the most preferred way to deliver spear attacks. This is why security experts advocate using an email verification system that will help you find out the authenticity and safety aspects of an email.
- Use updated software or application
Outdated or legacy systems are more prone to spear-phishing attacks. Hackers are aware of their infrastructure and can create potential malware to harm them. Hence, it’s suggested to use only updated software/applications. Mostly, users get free updates. Make sure you don’t postpone them.
- Take regular data back-up
Even if you implement all the above prevention methods, it’s not sure that you won’t face its wrath in your whole lifetime.
So, you must be prepared for the worst. You must take regular backup of crucial data so that you don’t lose mission-critical details/credentials in case an attacker succeeds at spear-phishing.
Protection from Wallarm
The advanced security approach of Wallarm is capable enough to keep various kinds of phishing attacks, including spear phishing, at bay. Its offerings include:
Comprehensive API security platform - With the help of this solution, it’s easy for API users to prevent API attacks. The platform provides detailed threat detection & prevention assistance to API users. The solution works on all kinds of APIs with the same ease and perfection.
Cloud WAF - Wallarm’s Cloud WAF is useful in avoiding spear phishing attacks on the website. The advanced traffic filtration facility of this WAF ensures that not a single corrupted or malicious link reaches your site/web-app. All sorts of dangerous requests are blocked before they reach the website.