Phishing, which started off as Nigerian Prince scams in the 1990s, has become a common attack vector ever since. As though phishing wasn’t enough of a cybersecurity menace, overtime many different kinds of phishing have come into being. Among many forms of this cyberthreat, spear-phishing attacks are the most challenging to stop. Spear phishing attacks are much more sophisticated, very well-researched, and highly targeted campaigns. The highly effective spear phishing is a cybersecurity threat that is giving CISOs sleepless nights.
In this article, we help you understand why this attack vector is the next big security challenge and ways to effectively prevent these attacks.
Understanding Spear Phishing Attacks
Spear phishing attacks are highly targeted attempts by attackers against a specific, often high-value target. Orchestrated through email or other online messaging, these insidious attacks aim to either gain access to confidential/ sensitive information or infect devices with malware/ ransomware, among others.
Spear phishing is a cybersecurity threat that is effective because the attackers thoroughly research the targeted organization/ individual before planning the attack. Publicly available information, social media platforms, and sources on the Dark Web are leveraged for research. Based on this information, they craft and send seemingly credible and convincing emails/ online messages with an urgent explanation.
Not just that, they disguise themselves as an authority figure or a trustworthy entity to win the trust of the victim and get them to do their bidding, making this attack vector particularly vicious. The attacker leverages this information or system access to target the organization.
Phishing vs Spear Phishing
Though phishing and spear-phishing may seem similar, they are quite different. Phishing is a generic and a low-tech attack vector that is not targeted. Attackers use phishing campaigns to go after many low-yield targets. Spear phishing campaigns are targeted at high-yield victims and make use of purposefully crafted emails and other online messaging to do so.
Attackers use automated, off-the-shelf tools to create phishing scams to gather large volumes of credentials or spread malware/ ransomware. For spear phishing, attackers leverage much more sophisticated tools and tailored approaches.
Why are Spear Phishing Scams Such a Big Challenge for CISOs?
Increasing Sophistication and Complexity of Tools and Methodology
The earliest forms of spear phishing would use simpler methods and tools such as malicious email attachments or zip files. Robust email security measures and spam filtering tools could identify and filter such emails and online messaging out.
Today, the complexity and sophistication of tools and methods used have rapidly evolved. Attackers are now storing documents containing malicious payloads on legitimate sites such as Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, and so on as IT teams would not block such cloud storage sites. Attackers are also increasingly breaching API and session tokens to gain access to cloud storage and email box.
High-Level Employees and Even the CISOs Could Fall Prey to Spear Phishing Attacks
Spear Phishing attacks aimed at high-level employees and privileged users, popularly known as whaling, are also on the rise in the recent past. Firstly, targeting high-level executives has higher potential rewards than targeting junior-level employees. For instance, gaining access to their credentials would mean easy access to payroll, invoicing, and other high-value business information.
Secondly, high-level executives often juggle several time-critical tasks. They are under immense pressure, now more than ever, owing to the challenges caused by the pandemic. When attackers pose as the CEO or Founder to coerce the targeted executive to doing their bidding, there is a higher probability of them falling prey to such scams.
Thirdly, high-level executives are often not as trained and equipped to identify such malicious attempts. Combined with their pressure and time constraints, they become highly available targets too.
Developing into a Larger Threat in the Post-Pandemic Landscape
The number of spear-phishing attacks since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen an increase of over 600%! In particular, business email compromise, impersonation, blackmailing, and scamming have been on the rise in the post-pandemic landscape. Attackers are leveraging fear to create panic and get the targets to do their bidding.
Conventional Defenses are Ineffective Against Spear Phishing Attacks
Most organizations use traditional defenses such as spam filtering tools and email security. However, with the increasing sophistication of this attack vector, attackers rather easily breach such security measures. In such circumstances, it is up to the user to recognize and report the spear-phishing scam to the right internal authorities. Given that traditional security fortifications and conventional methodologies are ineffective in tackling these scams, newer, more effective approaches are a must for a robust cybersecurity posture.
Spear Phishing Protection
- Onboard a holistic, intelligent, and managed security solution like AppTrana. The solution must be well-equipped to filter targeted phishing messages, block malicious actors at the network perimeter even if they gain access to credentials, and effectively protect your data and mission-critical assets from attackers.
- Regular penetration testing is necessary to understand and streamline the efficacy of security measures.
- Continuous training of employees, especially high-level executives, administrators, and other privileged users.
- Implement a strong password policy and multi-factor authentication.
The actual number of spear-phishing attacks may be low in comparison to other attack vectors. However, they are much more effective, cause bigger damages, and are more challenging to stop in comparison. Organizations must take spear phishing protection seriously and take holistic measures to stop them.