September 28, 2023

Spear phishing vs phishing approaches often make little difference to cybercriminals in terms of efficacy; it may take longer to execute successful spear phishing attacks, but they generally result in larger ultimate payouts. As defenses improve, cybercriminals continue to evolve tactics to gain unauthorized access to networks, systems, and sensitive information. And in spite of widespread news stories about cyber attacks and increasingly challenging employee training on cybersecurity, spear phishing and phishing consistently see even the savviest users being tricked into engaging.   

What is spear phishing?

A subset of phishing, spear phishing involves targeted messages customized for individuals or a specific group (e.g., executives at a company or people with a particular job function). Spear phishing messages are commonly customized using a person’s name along with details that give the message credibility.  

The customized messages utilized in spear phishing are designed to make targets believe they are legitimate. Research is conducted to gather information to engage these strategic targets, such as: 

  • Names of the targets 
  • Information of interest to the targets, such as financial information (e.g., latest sales numbers for a CEO) or current events of personal interest (e.g., topics being followed on their social media accounts) 
  • Names of colleagues, family, or friends, along with a need they may have  

Delivered via email, spear phishing messages are designed to trick the target into opening a malicious link or executing a harmful download. 

The ultimate goal of spear phishing attacks varies, but common objectives include stealing sensitive information, gaining access to networks to plant the seeds for future attacks by installing malware, and financial gain.  

Sub-categories of spear phishing include: 

  • Whaling or big game attacks target executive-level employees at major companies. 
  • CEO fraud attacks target junior employees with fake messages from a senior authority (e.g., a CEO) or colleagues. Usually, these are urgent messages crafted to pressure and trick the junior person into taking unauthorized actions due to an extenuating circumstance. 
  • Clone phishing attacks intercept a target’s messages and replicate a real email message the recipient previously received, replacing legitimate links and attachments with malicious ones. Examples of emails used for clone phishing are bills and shipment tracking notifications.  

What is phishing?

Also referred to as group phishing, this type of cyberattack targets a large group, such as employees at an organization, with the same version of a message sent in a variety of ways, such as email, voicemail, or text message. General phishing is the simplest type of phishing attack. 

Phishing attacks are conducted using emails, texts (smishing or SMS phishing), or phone calls (vishing or voice phishing) to a large group of individuals or organizations with malicious messages. One type of phishing, business email compromise (BEC), involves attackers spoofing email addresses so they appear to come from a legitimate source.  

Common characteristics of phishing attacks are: 

  • The sender impersonates a real person or entity. 
  • The objective of the communication is to trick the victim into downloading malware via malicious attachments and links or sharing sensitive information (e.g., credit card numbers, bank account numbers, or Social Security Numbers). 

Differences between spear phishing vs phishing

Spear phishing and phishing share many characteristics. However, there are notable differences between phishing and spear phishing, including the following, which inform the security controls that should be used for protection. 

Spear phishing vs phishing 
Research is conducted to inform the content of highly targeted and personalized messages for individuals or small groups.  Generic messages are sent to a large group in bulk blasts. 
Sophisticated social engineering tactics are used to develop a relationship and build trust over a series of communications.  A sense of urgency is embedded into one-time messages to trick recipients into acting without thinking. 
Victims are strategically selected to receive the messages. Victims are more random and part of a mass scamming effort.   
The objective is a major payday, such as stealing sensitive information or tricking someone into a large wire transfer.   The objective is to retrieve smaller prizes, such as passwords or credit card information. 
The attacks are usually conducted manually. The attacks are usually conducted using automation.   
The attacks are very sophisticated.   The attacks are fairly rudimentary. 
The result of a successful attack is significant harm.   The result of the attack is the loss of some money. 
Spear phishing attacks can be difficult to identify.   Phishing attacks are easy to spot. 

Tips to protect the enterprise from spear phishing vs phishing

The tools and processes used to detect, protect, and mitigate spear phishing and phishing attacks are similar, with a few notable exceptions, such as: 

  • Increasing monitoring of likely victims’ accounts
  • Making potential victims aware that they could be targeted with spear phishing 
  • Training likely targets about the specific characteristics of spear phishing messages 

Commonly cited protection tips for spear phishing and phishing include: 

  • Conduct security awareness training with a specific focus on: 
    • Helping users identify warning signs of phishing, such as misspelled words, poor grammar, a threatening tone, heightened urgency, or requests for personal information or money 
    • Educating users about how to validate email addresses and URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) before opening or engaging with a message or URL 
    • Teaching users to avoid clicking on popups, attachments, and links 
  • Configure SPF (Sender Policy Framework), DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail), and DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance) to prevent email domain spoofing   
  • Encrypt all sensitive information 
  • Enforce strict password policies that go beyond requiring users to change passwords regularly 
  • Implement multi-factor authentication or another solution for access 
  • Keep systems and software up to date with the latest versions and patches installed 
  • Monitor users, systems, and applications for indications of malicious activity 
  • Run frequent backups and create a plan for business continuity 
  • Scan inbound messages for commonly used malware attachment types, such as exe, HTA, and PDF 
  • Use an anti-phishing security solution that leverages artificial intelligence to filter and detect suspicious messages 
  • Use firewalls to block outbound traffic by malicious software 

Spear phishing vs phishing: Which causes more damage?

When considering which is more dangerous, spear phishing vs phishing, there is not a clear winner. Both spear phishing and phishing are relatively low-tech cyber attack methods, but still present formidable risks to organizations. 

Despite years of defense development, human error and negligence persist in overriding technical security controls. Without a doubt, cybersecurity solutions help minimize the efficacy of spear phishing and phishing, but only changes in users’ behavior, with the help of security awareness training, can stop these attacks from gaining traction. 

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