Spear phishing: what it is, risks and differences with phishing

Spear phishing is a data theft technique in which cybercriminals conduct thorough research on their potential victims.  This allows the...
16 November 2023

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Spear phishing: what it is, risks and differences with phishing

Spear phishing is a data theft technique in which cybercriminals conduct thorough research on their potential victims. 

This allows the fraudster to build trust with the message recipient, increasing the likelihood of obtaining the necessary data for their fraudulent activities. 

Protecting individuals’ privacy and investing in digital security measures are essential to preventing spear phishing attacks.

To safeguard yourself from such criminal activities online, it’s crucial to have a deep understanding of those seeking to cause you trouble. 

This article delves into what spear phishing is, the associated risks, and how it differs from traditional phishing, which is information you’ll find valuable.

What Is Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing is a form of identity theft primarily through email, aiming to steal confidential or sensitive data from individuals or organizations with malicious intent. 

Unlike generic phishing attacks, spear phishing involves cybercriminals researching information about individuals or entities considered trustworthy by the victim. 

The ultimate goal is to gain the recipient’s trust in a virtual message, leading them to provide requested data without suspicion, typically via a deceptive link. While email remains the primary channel for such attacks, they can also be conducted through text messages or social media.

Spear phishing: what it is, risks and differences with phishing

Risks associated with Spear Phishing

The risks posed by spear phishing to individuals or businesses can be severe, potentially endangering your assets, reputation, or the continuity of your projects. Cybercriminals pursue various objectives, including:

  • Obtaining confidential information such as personal data, passwords, and credentials.
  • Initiating fund transfers, such as payments for fake invoices or services known to the victim.
  • Activating malicious programs by clicking on fraudulent links. This can result in access to files being blocked in exchange for a ransom, theft of strategic product data, or customer database breaches, among others. 

Due to its more sophisticated nature compared to phishing, spear phishing attacks have higher success rates.

How do spear phishing attacks differ from standard phishing attacks? 

Distinguishing characteristics between phishing and spear phishing revolve around several key factors.


The very definitions of these techniques hint at their differences. 

Phishing is akin to data fishing, while spear phishing is akin to using a harpoon – a more precise approach.


The primary distinction lies in intent. Phishing is a random scam, whereas spear phishing is a deliberate, meticulously planned fraud targeting specific individuals.


In contrast to the widespread email campaigns in phishing, spear phishing involves crafting unique, personalized messages for recipients, employing advanced social engineering techniques

This scam necessitates weeks or even months of victim behavior analysis, underscoring the importance of digital security.

Data Sources

Spear phishing tailors campaigns to victims based on information gathered from social media, compromised accounts, company websites, and more. 

Phishing, in contrast, requires nothing more than a contact detail like an email address or phone number, without the need to know the recipient personally.

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Message Content

Spear phishing messages are more convincing as they often incorporate personalized information, such as interests, home address, tax data, or professional details extracted from the victim’s social media profiles.

Real-world examples of spear phishing attacks

Spear phishing attacks often involve careful research and social engineering to craft convincing messages that target specific individuals within organizations, making them highly effective and dangerous.

Let’s see some examples.

Business Email Compromise (BEC):

  • In a BEC spear phishing attack, a cybercriminal typically impersonates a high-ranking executive or CEO within a company.
  • The attacker emails an employee responsible for financial transactions, often the CFO or someone in the finance department.
  • The email may request urgent wire transfers or payments to a fraudulent account, under the pretense of a confidential business deal.
  • The attacker aims to trick the employee into making unauthorized financial transactions.

CEO Fraud:

  • In a CEO fraud attack, the attacker targets an organization’s finance department, posing as the CEO or another executive.
  • The attacker emails an employee, requesting confidential financial information or initiating fraudulent transactions.
  • This type of spear phishing attack leverages the authority and trust associated with high-level executives.

Employee Credential Theft:

  • Attackers may target specific organizational employees, such as IT or network administrators.
  • The attacker sends a phishing email that appears to be from a trusted source, like a software vendor or an IT service provider.
  • The email may ask employees to log in to a fake website to verify their credentials.
  • Once the employee enters their login information, the attacker gains access to the company’s network or sensitive systems.
What Is Spear Phishing?

Supplier Invoice Fraud:

  • The attacker impersonates a legitimate supplier or vendor in this spear phishing attack.
  • The attacker sends an email with an invoice requesting payment for goods or services.
  • If the recipient pays the invoice, the funds go to the attacker’s account, not the actual supplier.
  • These attacks exploit the trust between an organization and its suppliers.

Personalized Malware Delivery:

  • Attackers may send personalized emails to individuals within an organization.
  • These emails may contain malicious attachments or links tailored to the recipient’s interests or job role.
  • Once the recipient opens the attachment or clicks on the link, malware is downloaded onto their device, allowing the attacker to access the organization’s network.

Credential Harvesting via HR:

  • Sometimes, attackers pose as HR personnel, sending fake job offers or employee benefit updates.
  • They may request that recipients update their personal information, including login credentials.
  • The stolen credentials can then be used to access the organization’s systems.

These examples highlight the diversity and sophistication of spear phishing attacks.

What helps protect from spear phishing?

The larger your organization, the greater the potential for spear phishing attacks, given the increased number of employees. Therefore, the first step in thwarting cybercriminal attacks is education.

Raise security awareness

One practical approach to prevent spear phishing is through security training for your teams

Awareness programs can include simulated attacks conducted by digital security professionals, fostering an understanding of the importance of limiting the sharing of sensitive information online.

Develop a best practices manual

Provide your teams with a best practices manual that outlines recommendations for identifying unsafe content.

Encourage caution

Just as you wouldn’t invite a stranger into your home for coffee, exercise caution when engaging with unknown individuals online. Any virtual profile you don’t recognize could conceal cybercriminals.

How do spear phishing attacks differ from standard phishing attacks?

Implement anti-spam rules in email

Implement Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC) protocols to detect identity spoofing in spear phishing attempts.

Use Secure Applications and Software

Recognize that social media isn’t the only entry point for attacks. Any software or application you install on your devices carries some level of risk. Choose and download programs that offer necessary security guarantees.

At Smowltech, we’re committed to enhancing the security of your company’s online proctoring with our adaptable proctoring solutions

Our solutions create secure environments that respect individuals’ privacy, preventing identity theft and fraud during assessments. Request a free, personalized demo to experience the full potential of our innovative solutions.

Download now!

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