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What is Spear Phishing Attack? – Guide for Motives, Techniques & Prevention Methods

Every day tens of thousands of Spear phishing emails are sent to millions of victims around the world.

Cyber-attacks have different pathways now; they can strike you from inside or outside, with equal damages across your network.

Targeted takedowns could be critical if analyzed and executed with absolute precision.

In this guide. We’ll look at Spear Phishing Attacks, techniques, examples, mitigation procedures, and a few best practices.

What is Spear Phishing?

Spear Phishing is a malicious practice that executes via Email campaigns that hackers research their target audience, understand their likes and dislikes, study their day to day operations, and customize the mail to steal sensitive data and install malware. This type of targeted email campaign deployment to infiltrate their target audience group is called Spear Phishing Attack.

Any anonymous email that drops into your inbox from an unknown sender can be assumed to be phishing Attack. Blasting millions of emails to the database of email id’s with malicious intent is called phishing.

It could be for the deployment of malware, remote code executions and more, however, this phishing may not be rewarding for hackers.

How does Spear Phishing Attack Work?

Spear Phishing is executed in four stages,

  1. Target identification
  2. Studying the target’s behavior
  3. Customizing the message
  4. Blasting emails

Target identification:

The hackers initially identify their target victims by narrowing down their audience based on their motive of the campaign, this could be targeted at corporate in a particular vertical or patients of a healthcare company.

The identification procedure is divided into two stages, the primary and secondary target, primary target will be executives working for an MNC, who will be receiving the blasted emails and the secondary target will be the key ones who will have access to business sensitive information.

These primary targets that have become victims to the spear phishing attack will be manipulated to exploit the secondary targets.

Studying the target’s behavior:

Gathering information about the targeted audience by digging deep into their social media profiles, job sites, portfolios, comments, likes and groups they belong to, and communities they belong to. One way or another the hackers will gain their personal information like email, phone numbers, first name, surname, history of experience, schooling, college, area of expertise and more which they will use to influence their potential targets.

Customizing the message

Hackers will customize their emails and message based on the information collected from these external resources for better open rates and reduced bounce rates. Once a successfully established message is obtained they will proceed for the email blasting procedure.

Blasting emails

After all the research hackers will prepare their attack vector and strategy to ensure the mail gets delivered to the target audience inbox and not into the spam folder.

They will disguise the sender details to be a legitimate one, to ensure the proper delivery of the mail is made and the end user opens it as expected.

After opening the email, the user will click a link or download an attachment-based on the content as it is made accurate.

With all research, the CTR will definitely be high. Thanks to the reliability of the mail crafting procedures the hackers have implemented.

What are 3 types of Spear-phishing emails?

Usually, hackers prefer one of three techniques below to manipulate their target audience.

  1. Impersonation
  2. Personalization
  3. Emotional Response

Impersonation

As the name defines, hackers pretend to be someone else or a legal entity to establish trust and elude with data. This technique is very commonly used by disguising a genuine person or entity in the sender section with an indistinguishable subject line.

Personalization

This technique has an excellent success rate, as the message is very much customized for the recipient so he believes that this email will be of use to him or for his profession in general.

Emotional Response

This technique creates a fear, happiness, shock or surprise to make the end user open the mail and click/download the malicious content as planned.

What is an example of spear phishing?

Examples of Spear Phishing Attacks are very much targeted and often have disastrous outcomes for enterprises, below are few examples for successful spear phishing attacks.

Ubiquite Networks Inc

This Company paid more than USD $40 million in 2015, as a result of spear phishing attack because of a CEO fraud. The emails were impersonated as if they were from senior executives to transfer funds to a third party entity in Hong Kong, which was then found to be some anonymous entity and not a genuine third party.

RSA

RSA is a leading security firm but unfortunately, even they themselves become victim to a targeted spear phishing attack in 2011.

Mails with subject line ‘2011 Recruitment Plan’ were blasted, though most of it was marked as spam one user opened it, leading to the deployment of malware into the infected system and eventually gave remote access to the hackers to infiltrate the computer and network.

Amazon

Amazon is another leader among the fortune 500 companies, targeting this firm will definitely improve your success rates for spear phishing.

In 2015, a mass spear phishing attack was unleashed targeting Amazon customers with a subject line ‘Your Amazon.com order has been dispatched’, followed by a code.

However, unlike the normal emails from Amazon, where you could see the dispatch status directly in the mail or via your Amazon account, in this case, it was mentioned to be available in the attachment.

Few employees become prey to this maneuver and a Locky ransomware was downloaded and installed in the infected systems to encrypt data and demand ransom.

How can you protect yourself from phishing?

Spear phishing prevention is a process that depends on different factors like awareness, tools, education, emotional response and more. Below are the best practices that both organizations and individuals should practice to protect yourself from phishing,

  1. Increasing cyber awareness
  2. Employing cyber tools
  3. Identifying fake emails
  4. Avoiding clicks and attachments
  5. Avoid mails that force urgency

According to a report from Intel 97% of people were unable to identify a phishing mail. The best suggestion to apply spear phishing prevention by creating cyber awareness and improving cyber education. Spear phishing prevention is a process that will depend on a number of factors and their amount of precision.

Increasing cyber awareness:

Organizations and individuals should improve their cyber awareness either themselves or through cyber guidelines. Understanding the attack vectors, their mechanisms, procedures and possible procedures can help the end users and individuals prepare themselves any potential phishing scams and ensure they avoid them all times.

Employing cyber tools

As already mentioned in earlier sections, no tools are good against phishing attacks but properly configured browser policies, email filters, and endpoint configurations can reduce the chances of becoming a victim to phishing scams. GPO policies for stronger passwords and firewall configurations could also help organizations secure their users against phishing mails.

Identifing fake emails

Users can also distinguish between a genuine and fake mail by looking at the subject line, the sender and the relativity. Based on the content of the email this can be re-confirmed. Any unknown senders or purpose of the mail could be a potential phishing scam.

Avoiding clicks and attachments

Not all phishing scams do work when the mail is opened, most is switched ON only when the link in the mail is being clicked or an attachment is being opened. So the users need to ensure they are aware of the links and attachments, perhaps by hovering over the link or looking at the attachment file.

Avoid mails the force urgency

Users should avoid emails that create an urgency; emotional response is what will become prey to these sort of phishing emails. Any emotional mail that create a fear, surprise, shock, or personalized emotional response based on your tax, and health metrics should be avoided.

Spear Phishing Infographic

Spear Phishing

Organizations need to have few policies and configurations in place to keep phishing mails away from the enterprise network, however when users expose themselves to public networks only a self-analysis and cyber practices can keep them safe against spear phishing attack.

If you guys have ever experienced a phishing email, or do have an example to share, please free to comment below your experiences and message so we will see some real-time information on this threat.

Spear phishing attacks are hard to detect and mitigate, so keep your browsers and firewalls active and updated.

Struggling to Apply The Security Patch in Your System? – 

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Balaji
Balaji
BALAJI is an Ex-Security Researcher (Threat Research Labs) at Comodo Cybersecurity. Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder - Cyber Security News & GBHackers On Security.

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