Spear Phishing vs Phishing (No-Nonsense Guide)

Think you know everything about spear-phishing vs phishing? Here's the different techniques and prevention measures you need to know to prevent both kinds of attacks.

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In an analysis of 50 billion emails across 3.5 million mailboxes, Barracuda researchers uncovered nearly 30,000,000 spear-phishing emails..

And 50%of organizations fall victim to spear phishing every year.

Want to get the lowdown on the differences between spear phishing and phishing to better protect your organization?

Below we'll look at the different techniques and prevention measures you need to know to prevent both kinds of attacks.  

What is phishing?

📚 Quick definition: Phishing is a type of cyber attack in which attackers attempt to deceive individuals into providing sensitive information (usually things like usernames, passwords, credit card numbers etc).

Threat actors will typically pose as a legitimate institution or entity to trick users into giving away information.

This kind of social engineering primarily uses deceptive emails, messages, or websites designed to look authentic.

The most common type of phishing is done via email.

Attackers will send emails that appears to come from a reputable source, such as a bank, online service, or colleague.

These emails will often rely on creating urgency or alarm...

The quicker you feel you're forced to act, the less likely you are to pick up on anything suspicious.

Common techniques used in phishing attacks

Impersonation of trusted sources: Phishing attacks often involve emails, text messages, or websites that appear to come from reputable sources like banks, online retailers, social media platforms, or even colleagues and friends.

Deceptive messaging: Malicious emails often create a sense of urgency, fear, or curiosity to prompt the recipient to act quickly. Users may be told an account has been compromised, a payment is overdue, or that a special offer is about to expire.

Spoofed email addresses: Attackers use email addresses that closely resemble those of legitimate entities, making it difficult to distinguish between real and fake emails.

Malicious Links: Phishing emails often contain links that redirect the recipient to fraudulent websites designed to harvest login credentials or personal information.

What types of phishing attacks are out there?

Email phishing

Email phishing is the most prevalent form of phishing attack.

Cybercriminals send out mass emails that appear to come from legitimate organizations

Smishing (SMS phishing)

In smishing attacks, cybercriminals send fraudulent messages via SMS or text messages.

Vishing (voice phishing)

Vishing attacks occur over the phone, where attackers impersonate legitimate organizations or authorities.

Clone phishing

Clone phishing involves duplicating a legitimate email previously sent to the victim.

The attacker replaces links or attachments in the original email with malicious ones and sends it from an address that closely resembles the legitimate sender.

Pharming

Pharming redirects users from legitimate websites to fraudulent ones without their knowledge.

This is usually achieved by manipulating DNS settings to point to malicious websites or infecting users' computers with malware.

Watering hole attacks

In watering hole attacks, attackers compromise websites that are frequently visited by their target audience.

The malicious code embedded in these sites infects visitors’ computers or redirects them to phishing sites


What is spear phishing?

📚 Quick definition: Spear phishing is a type of targeted phishing attack, aimed at a specific individual or organization.

Spear phishing is ultimately a more advanced form of phishing, wherein attackers use social engineering skills and often spoofed emails to target their chosen victims.

Typically, phishing attempts are sent to a large number of people...

Whereas spear phishing emails are personalized and tailored to the victim, making them much more convincing and difficult to detect.

Spear phishing attempts that target high-profile individuals within an organization are called 'whaling' attacks.

Whale phishing targets senior executives, CEOs, CFOs and other decision-makers.

Spear phishing example
Source: ResearchGate

Stick 'em with the pointy end: How spear phishing attacks are executed

When attackers make regular phishing attacks, they can use an already created template, add a link to it with a generic name and a mass of recipients.

It’s so easy that it’s almost like robots working on an assembly line.

Luckily, bulk phishing emails are quickly detected, and phishing sites are amongst the most frequently blocked.

But much more effort is required to make a good spear attack... 

Attackers will research their target

  • Social media: Attackers gather detailed information from social media platforms to understand their target's personal and professional background.
  • Company websites: They review the target company’s website for organizational structure, recent projects, and contact information.
  • Data Breaches: Attackers may use data from previous breaches to obtain email addresses, usernames, and other personal information.

Any information they find will be used to craft personalized emails

  • Content creation: Using the gathered information, attackers craft emails that appear legitimate and relevant to the target. This includes addressing the target by name, referencing specific projects, or mimicking the style of emails they typically receive.
  • Impersonation: Email spoofing is a cool (if very malicious) technique used in phishing attacks to hoax people into believing that an email originates from a person or entity they can trust, or they personally know. This could be your friend, colleague, HR team or even the police. Basically, anyone relevant to you.

Spear phishing emails usually contain malicious attachments or links

  • Malicious links: The email may contain links that lead to fake websites designed to capture login credentials or personal information.
  • Infected attachments: Attachments such as PDFs, Word documents, or Excel files may contain malware or ransomware.

Aiming the spear: common targets of spear phishing attacks

Senior executives (C-Suite)

  • CEOs: As the highest-ranking individuals, they have access to the most sensitive information and can authorize major decisions and transactions.
  • CFOs and Finance Directors: They handle the organization's financial transactions, making them prime targets for financial fraud.
  • CIOs and CTOs: These executives oversee the organization's IT infrastructure and data security, making their credentials valuable for accessing sensitive systems.

Finance and accounting

  • Accounts payable and receivable: Employees in these roles handle invoices, payments, and financial records, making them targets for attackers looking to initiate fraudulent transactions.
  • Payroll: Payroll staff manage employee salaries and personal data, which means they're often targets for identity theft and financial fraud.

HR

  • HR Managers and recruiters: They have access to personal information of employees and job applicants, which can be exploited for identity theft or used in further social engineering attacks.
  • Benefits administrators: These individuals manage benefits and personal data and so targeting them could get attackers access to sensitive personal and financial information.

IT and security

  • IT Admins: They have elevated privileges within the organization's systems and networks, making their credentials highly valuable for gaining broader access.
  • Security Analysts: These professionals monitor and respond to security incidents. Compromising their accounts can help attackers evade detection.

Why these targets?

  • Access to sensitive information: These individuals have access to proprietary information, financial data, employee records, and other sensitive data.
  • Authority to approve transactions: Many of these roles have the authority to approve financial transactions, making it easier for attackers to initiate fraudulent activities.
  • Communication with external parties: Frequent communication with external vendors, clients, and partners provides attackers with a plausible pretext for their spear phishing emails.

Differences between spear phishing and phishing

A spear can cut and slice with extreme precision.

While regular phishing attacks are usually sent to any random Joe or Jane, spear phishing is customized to attack specific individuals, selected groups, or organizations.

The aim is for the attack to cause harm to businesses big and small… and to you, the individual. 

Targeting and personalization

Phishing

Phishing attacks are broad and indiscriminate.

Attackers send out mass emails or messages to a large number of recipients, without targeting specific individuals.

The goal is to cast a wide net and hope that a small percentage of recipients will fall for the scam.

These emails often use generic greetings such as "Dear Customer" and include general content that could apply to anyone.

Spear phishing

Spear phishing is highly targeted.

Attackers focus on specific individuals or organizations, tailoring their attacks based on information gathered about the target.

This makes spear phishing more personalized and convincing.

Attackers use specific details about the target, such as their name, job title, colleagues, or recent activities, to make the email appear legitimate.

Sophistication

Phishing

Phishing attacks are typically less sophisticated.

They may contain obvious grammatical errors, poorly crafted messages, and easily detectable malicious links or attachments.

Spear phishing

Spear phishing attacks are more sophisticated and well-crafted.

They often use professional language, correct grammar, and carefully designed messages that mimic legitimate communications from trusted sources.

Research and preparation

Phishing

Phishing requires minimal preparation.

Attackers use automated tools to send large volumes of emails, relying on the law of large numbers to achieve success.

Spear phishing

Spear phishing attackers conduct detailed research on their targets, gathering information from social media, company websites, and other sources to craft convincing and personalized messages.

Success rate

Phishing

Phishing has a lower success rate per email because it targets a broad audience with generic messages.

However, due to the sheer volume of emails sent, attackers can still achieve significant results.

The average click rate for a phishing campaign is 17.8%.

Spear phishing

Spear phishing has a higher success rate per email because it is highly targeted and personalized.

The convincing nature of the emails makes it more likely that the recipient will engage with the malicious content.

Spear phishing campaigns have an average click rate of 53.2%.

And despite only account for 0.1% of of all phishing attacks, they account for 66% of successful data breaches

Phishing Spear Phishing
Broad and indiscriminate Highly targeted and specific
Generic greetings and content Personalized and tailored messages
Less sophisticated, more errors More sophisticated, well-crafted
Minimal, automated Extensive research and preparation
Lower success rate per email, higher overall Higher success rate per email, lower overall
Generic emails from popular services Specific emails from trusted sources

Spear phishing vs phishing: real-life examples

COVID-19 vaccine phishing scams (2020-2021)

What happened?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, phishing campaigns surged, exploiting public interest and urgency surrounding vaccines.

Attackers sent emails impersonating health organizations like the CDC and WHO, offering information about vaccines or asking recipients to complete surveys to receive early access to vaccines.

These emails contained malicious links or attachments.

Impact

Many recipients fell for the scam, leading to stolen personal information, financial losses, and the spread of malware.

One notable campaign was reported to have affected over 200,000 recipients within a single month.

Microsoft Office 365 phishing attack (2021)

What happened?

A widespread phishing campaign targeted Microsoft Office 365 users by mimicking legitimate Microsoft communications.

Emails were sent that appeared to come from Microsoft, warning users that their accounts had been compromised and prompting them to reset their passwords via a malicious link.

Impact

Users who clicked the link and entered their credentials had their accounts compromised, which attackers then used to launch further attacks or access sensitive data.

A specific campaign in early 2021 affected over 30,000 users, leading to substantial data breaches and financial repercussions.

Twitter spear phishing attack (2020)

What happened?

In July 2020, attackers used spear phishing to gain access to Twitter’s internal systems, leading to a high-profile security breach.

Twitter employees were targeted with access to internal tools through phone spear phishing, also known as vishing (voice phishing).

By convincing these employees to provide login credentials or MFA codes, the attackers gained access to internal systems.

Impact

The attackers compromised the accounts of over 130 prominent figures, including Elon Musk, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, using them to promote a cryptocurrency scam.

The financial losses from the scam were estimated at around $121,000 in Bitcoin, but the reputational damage to Twitter was significant, impacting its stock value and trust.

Spear phishing attack on ExecuPharm (2020)

What is it?

In 2020, ExecuPharm, a pharmaceutical giant, was targeted by the Clop ransomware group through a spear phishing attack.

Attackers sent spear phishing emails to specific employees within ExecuPharm, using personalized messages that appeared to come from trusted sources within the company.

These emails contained malicious attachments that, when opened, installed Clop ransomware on the victims' systems.

Impact

The attack led to the encryption of ExecuPharm’s data and a subsequent ransom demand.

The attackers also exfiltrated sensitive data before encrypting it and threatened to release the information publicly if the ransom was not paid.

The breach resulted in significant operational disruptions, financial losses estimated in the millions, and the exposure of sensitive employee and client information.

How to identify spear phishing attacks

When it comes to catching (or at least ducking out of the way of) and approaching spear, there are some characteristics of these attacks you can look for to distinguish them from traditional phishing attacks.

Spear attacks usually are spoofed emails

The email’s content is adjusted as coming from someone known by the recipient.

This motivates the recipient to react to the email, rather than leaving it unread.

A sense of urgency is this way harder to resist, leading to irrational decisions.

It’s tempting to open an attachment to prevent something bad like an account shutdown if it comes from your IT department rather than some random person.

Or you can think of a situation where your friend sends you a funny picture from years back.

It’s tempting to open these things right away.

How are they referring to you? 

The way you are greeted at the beginning of an email, says a lot about the rest of the message.

If the greeting has your full name and the messages includes your position in your company, you are more likely to give it your time of the day.

Usually in spear attacks, attackers also add a company signature at the end of the message to make it more reliable.

It can be your company's signature if the attacker is impersonating someone inside your company, or a completely fake one.

Regular phishing attacks often lack these types of details, or they are poorly made. The greeting “Hello john.doe”, is auto-generated and a suspicious way of greeting someone, but it is still widely used.

What kind of language are they using? 

If the contacting person is known to you, the language tends to be a bit laid back.

On the other hand, in it is an internal message from someone at your company, the language is usually informative and well written.

It is safe to say that, linguistically, regular phishing attacks are worse than the usually perfect-seeming spear attacks.

Are they using sensitive information and facts you may have posted elsewhere?

The most noticeable difference between spear phishing and phishing is how the spear attacks contain information and special facts about the you.

When you receive an email about your missing dog and it names your dog, I guess you wouldn’t think twice before replying to the message... unless your dog happens to be cuddled up next to you.

The piece of information can be anything from your company's policies to your mother's maiden name.

The point is, that it elevates the message by adding a personal touch.

A quick test: can you spot the difference?

Now, that we have discussed the key differences between spear phishing attacks and phishing attacks, we will introduce some side-by-side examples from our data.

Can you spot the spear?

Check the right answers at the end of the post.

Teams invites

Invoices

Invoice phishing

Benefits

Benefits phishing

Signature requests

Signature request phishing

Defending your organization against phishing vs. spear phishing

Defending against phishing

Invest in security awareness training that actually changes behavior

Regular training sessions: For training to be effective, sessions have to be frequent. Consistent, regular training will build habits over time.

Phishing simulations: Implement phishing simulations to test employees' responses and improve their ability to identify phishing attempts.

Personalized learning paths: Try sending employees simulations based on their performance. If someone is struggling with simulations, you might want to send them easier ones first to build up their confidence.

Positive reinforcement: A strong security posture isn't built on scaring employees into following best practice. Instead, reward positive behavior to empower employees.and motivate them to stay vigilant against phishing attempts.

Use email filtering and security solutions

Spam filters: Advanced spam filters will block phishing emails before they reach employees' inboxes.

Email authentication: Implement email authentication protocols like SPF, DKIM, and DMARC to prevent email spoofing.

Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA)

Layered security: Require MFA for accessing email accounts and sensitive systems to provide an additional layer of security against compromised credentials.

Enforce regular software updates

Patch management: Ensure all systems and software are regularly updated to protect against vulnerabilities that phishing attacks might exploit.

Make sure you have an incident response plan

Preparedness: Develop and regularly update an incident response plan to quickly address and mitigate the impact of a phishing attack.

Defending against spear phishing

Implement advanced threat detection

Behavioral analysis: Utilize advanced threat detection solutions that analyze email and user behavior to identify and block spear phishing attempts.

Machine learning: You may also want to look into AI-driven tools that can learn and adapt to detect the subtle signs of spear phishing.

ensure your employee training covers spear phishing attacks

Targeted training: Provide specialized training for high-risk employees (e.g., executives, finance, HR) who are more likely to be targeted.

Spear phishing simulations: Make sure you're sending out regular spear phishing that are personalized for specific roles.

Use email encryption and digital signatures

Secure communications: Email encryption and digital signatures will help ensure the authenticity and confidentiality of sensitive communications.

Deploy data loss prevention (DLP)

Monitoring: Implement DLP solutions to monitor and protect sensitive data from being exfiltrated through spear phishing attacks.

Stay on top of access Controls and privilege management

Least privilege principle: Enforce the principle of least privilege, ensuring employees have only the access necessary for their roles.

Regular audits: Conduct regular access reviews and audits to identify and mitigate unnecessary or risky access privileges.

Consider building executive protection programs

Enhanced security for executives: Provide additional security measures and training for executives and other high-profile targets.

Personal device security: Ensure that executives’ personal devices are secured and monitored for threats.

Phishing Spear Phishing
Training and Awareness General employee training, phishing simulations Specialized training for high-risk employees, spear phishing drills
Email Security Spam filters, email authentication (SPF, DKIM, DMARC) Advanced threat detection, behavioral analysis, AI-driven tools
Software Updates Regular updates and patch management Same as phishing, with emphasis on high-value systems
Safe Practices Verification procedures, user education Email encryption, digital signatures, DLP solutions
Access Controls Regular audits, least privilege principlel Enhanced access controls, executive protection programs

Protect your employees against all types of phishing with Hoxhunt

Want to to measurably lower risk?

Here at Hoxhunt, we believe that since most attacks start with targeting employees, so should the solution.

So, we built a security awareness and phishing training solution that goes beyond just awareness to deliver real risk reduction.

  • Drive results with realistic phishing simulations
  • Personalize training paths for every employee based on their role, location and tools used.
  • Use realistic phishing simulations that mimic the latest real-world threats.
  • Monitor and report performance and recognize weak spots with our analytics suite.
Hoxhunt phishing training

Spear phishing vs phishing FAQ

What is the difference between phishing and spear phishing?

Phishing is a type of cyber attack that targets masses of people with unsolicited emails designed to trick them into providing personal details.

Spear phishing, however, is a more targeted and sophisticated form of phishing.

Spear phishing attackers send personalized messages aimed at specific individuals or organizations, often high-ranking executives or lower-level employees with access to sensitive information.

What are some common characteristics of phishing attacks?

Regular phishing attacks typically involve:

  • Bulk emails sent to large numbers of people.
  • Generic greetings and messages.
  • Suspicious links or attachments intended to download malware.
  • Requests for personal information.
  • Poor grammar and spelling mistakes.

How do spear phishing attacks differ in nature from regular phishing?

The key difference lies in the targeted approach:

  • Spear phishing emails are tailored to the intended target, often containing personal details and information gathered from social media profiles.
  • These attacks aim to deceive the recipient into divulging confidential company information, such as trade secrets or wire transfer details.
  • The emails appear to come from trusted sources, such as colleagues or high-ranking executives within the same organization.

Who are the typical targets of spear phishing attacks?

Spear phishing usually targets individuals within an organization who have access to valuable information.

These can include:

  • High-ranking executives (C-level executives) for whaling attacks.
  • Employees in finance or HR departments who manage wire transfers or sensitive data.
  • Individuals with access to company email accounts or business secrets.

What are some examples of spear phishing scams?

Examples include:

  • CEO fraud: Where scammers impersonate a CEO or high-level executive to authorize fraudulent wire transfers.
  • Business email compromise: Attackers gain access to a business email account to manipulate employees into transferring money or sensitive data.
  • Fake invoices: Cybercriminals send invoices that appear legitimate to trick recipients into making payments.

Test answers

  1. Spear left
  2. Spear left
  3. Spear right
  4. Spear left
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