A common type of social engineering attack, spear phishing is a dangerously effective cyberthreat!
Spear phishing defined
Spear phishing is a subset of phishing, a broader category of social engineering attack. In phishing attacks — including spear phishing — cybercriminals use deceptive communications (like email and SMS messages) to trick victims into clicking malicious links, downloading malware, or disclosing sensitive information.
Spear phishing is a form of social engineering — a cyberattack that succeeds not by compromising software or servers directly, but by manipulating humans into taking unsafe actions or divulging sensitive information.
Phishing vs spear phishing: What’s the difference?
Phishing messages are meant to look legitimate and trustworthy, and may be presented as though they come from a reputable company or government agency. Their content often creates a sense of urgency as well, encouraging the reader to act immediately — opening malware-laden attachments or clicking on unsafe links — before they have a chance to second-guess the validity of the message.
What makes spear phishing unique is the level of customization in these messages. While phishing campaigns often cast a wide net, hoping to ensnare as many people as possible, spear phishing uses a more directed approach with customized messages designed to appeal to a specific recipient.
How spear phishing works?
Spear phishing campaigns use a three-step process to deliver malicious messages:
- First, a victim is identified — either an individual, or a specific small group, such as “salespeople at Company XYZ.”
- Next, the attackers gather details about their target, often based on publicly available info (e.g. corporate websites and social media profiles) or insider knowledge.
- Finally, the attackers use this personal information to tailor messages to the target or target group.
The attackers will ask their victims to take a specific action — these may include:
- Directly replying to the message with sensitive information.
- Opening an attachment that inevitably contains some type of malware.
- Navigating to a website that prompts the installation of malware.
- Navigating to a website that spoofs a legitimate sign-in page, but secretly captures any information entered.
Spear phishing appeals to cybercriminals because ultimately, it’s usually easier to deliver an attack that relies on human error than it is to hack into an organization’s systems. Compared to regular phishing attacks, spear phishing is also substantially more effective.
Why is spear phishing effective?
Though they require extra effort to create, spear phishing attacks tend to have a higher success rate than standard phishing tactics. This is because the amount of personalization that goes into these messages makes them considerably harder to identify as threats.
If cybercriminals want a phishing attack to seem plausible to massive numbers of people, they may be restricted to generic messages about “resetting your password” and impersonating major companies with whom many internet users have accounts, like Google or Microsoft. While it’s not safe to make assumptions about anyone’s cybersecurity literacy, it’s generally true that users are at least a little bit wary of such vague and impersonal messages.
A spear phishing attack, in contrast, may directly address the recipient by name. It may appear to have been sent by a known entity, such as the victim’s direct manager or their company’s IT department. Some of the most dangerously deceptive threats do actually come from these senders’ accounts — with cybercriminals having previously stolen or purchased user credentials for the purposes of a spear phishing attack. And the content of these messages will generally include a plausible, time-sensitive request for the victim to take some sort of action.
As an example, a spear phishing email targeting a corporate accountant might appear to originate from the victim’s manager, be written in the voice of that manager, and contain a request for the victim to complete a wire transfer to a specific account as an “emergency invoice payment.”
Spear phishing relies on the attackers’ ability to make a message seem genuine, and the personalization that goes into these messages makes victims more likely to let their guard down.
Acronis solution — Acronis Cyber Protect Cloud
Most people process a relentless stream of messages each day — from emails and chat applications to SMS and voicemail. The law of averages, fatigue, and deadline pressures practically guarantee that eventually, somebody is going make a mistake and open up a risky link or attachment.
While training team members to recognize the signs of phishing is an important part of any organization’s cyber security strategy, this is not alone sufficient as a form of protection. It only takes a single point of failure to expose business-critical systems and data to cybercriminals, putting an organization’s entire livelihood at serious risk. These dangers are even higher with spear phishing attacks, where messages are more difficult to identify as malicious.
Acronis Cyber Protect Cloud delivers security against spear phishing attacks in the form of a comprehensive cyber protection solution.URL filtering capabilities prevent users from reaching the malicious websites used in spear phishing attacks, while an AI-driven anti-malware engine identifies and blocks harmful processes from unfolding on users’ systems — effectively protecting against both known and unknown cyberthreats. In the event of data or system compromise, the integrated backup and recovery functionalities can quickly restore entire workloads.
This unified approach allows Acronis to deliver easy, efficient, and secure cyber protection for organizations and businesses of any size — improving downtime prevention, accelerating remediation, and eliminating operational complexity.
Acronis is a Swiss company, founded in Singapore. Celebrating two decades of innovation, Acronis has more than 1,800 employees in 45 locations. The Acronis Cyber Protect Cloud solution is available in 26 languages in over 150 countries and is used by 20,000 service providers to protect over 750,000 businesses.