Oct 19, 2021

Spear Phishing vs Phishing: What’s the Difference?

Phishing vs. Spear Phishing

Phishing isn’t a new concept for internet users. Scams have slipped into inboxes for years—some promising outrageous riches, others wielding cleverly worded incentives.

According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Report, the IC3 (Internet Crime Complaint Center) received 19,369 Business Email Compromise (BEC)/Email Account Compromise (EAC) complaints in 2020, totaling an adjusted loss of over $1.8 billion.

Meanwhile, a similar report from Broadcom listed spear-phishing attacks as the most popular attack vector used by observed hacker groups in 2019.

Phishing and spear phishing are both examples of social engineering cyber attacks. Social engineering manipulates victims into revealing sensitive information, such as passwords, social security numbers, and bank account details. 

Both regular and spear phishing attacks are used to spread malware such as ransomware through malicious links and downloads. Spear phishing attempts, however, pose a more direct cyber threat to organizations than regular phishing.

To help you prevent attacks and boost your email security, we’ve broken down the key characteristics of both scams below:


Spear phishing


Source


Spear phishing is a more advanced form of phishing. Spear phishing is also a specific and targeted attack on one or a select number of victims, while regular phishing attempts to scam masses of people.

In spear phishing, scammers often use social engineering and spoofed emails to target specific individuals in an organization. They may impersonate family members, colleagues, or business acquaintances.

To legitimize their requests, scammers often use social media to gain information on their target.

When contacting the target, they will address them by name and use personal facts and/or casual language. They may also use malware to gather private information.

Their primary goal is to manipulate employees into revealing sensitive data or to commit unauthorized actions such as wire transfers to fraudulent companies.


Scammers of this nature commonly employ two methods of attack: 

  • Whaling attacks: These are attacks aimed at senior executives, i.e., individuals with the power to access confidential information and (unknowingly) enable a data breach or approve a large money transfer.
  • CEO Fraud: Targeted attacks against junior employees where the attacker impersonates a senior authority (e.g., the CEO) or other high-level colleagues. They then pressure the reader into taking unauthorized actions. 


Phishing


Source


Regular phishing campaigns cast a broad net, whereas spear phishing emails are a more targeted approach to cybercrime.

However, that doesn’t make regular phishing any less of a threat.

Phishers commonly spread their scams over email, though they may target random individuals over phone calls (“vishing” ) or text messages (“smishing”). 

Phishing is a volume play. Out of thousands and thousands of attempts, at least one is bound to be successful.

Unlike spear phishing attackers, however, everyday scammers use impersonal but urgent language to manipulate readers into downloading a malicious attachment, clicking an unsafe link, or disclosing private information such as credit card details or login credentials.  


Phishing can be done in many different ways, including:

  • Vishing: Phishing over phone calls or downloaded internet protocols (aka Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP).
  • Smishing: Phishing over text messages, also known as SMS phishing. Just as with computers, phones can be infected with malware
  • Business email compromise (BEC): As with spear phishing attacks, general phishing attempts use spoofed or hacked email addresses to lure in victims.
  • Wire transfer phishing: This form of phishing is geared towards bank transfers to fraudulent entities. 


Essential Tips to Protect Yourself & Others from Both Spear Phishing & Phishing

It takes just one act to infect a computer and potentially compromise an entire organization. Fortunately, given the right tools and information, even the most invasive attacks can be thwarted. Here are a few simple steps you can take today to prevent phishing attacks of all kinds:

  1. Encrypt your data: In any case where your data or device is stolen, data encryption will ensure that the attacker cannot actually access or use the data.
  2. Use multi-factor authentication: Multi-factor authentication is one of the best ways to  ensure protection when your credentials or passwords are compromised. Attackers will only be able to access your data if they’ve authorized entry on every single authentication channel. In almost all cases, this is something they won’t be able to do.
  3. Authenticate your email: This best practice is meant to prevent the primary way credentials are stolen. You can authenticate your email through various methods such as configuring DMARC, SPF, and DKIM. (More on this below!)
  4. Never open a suspicious email attachment: One malicious link or attachment has the power to lock you out of your device, steal sensitive data, and delete critical files. For these reasons, it’s imperative that you read through any suspicious or even unexpected emails. Though you may recognize the sender, it never hurts to double-check with them before opening an email attachment.
  5. Keep software current and updated: By enabling automatic downloads on all applications and operations systems, users are less likely to be compromised by potential security exploits and phishing attempts.
  6. Use strong passwords and regularly update them: Hackers can crack 90% of all passwords in just under six hours. As most people use recycled passwords at home and in the workplace, this poses a serious security risk. Fortunately, cybercriminals can be deterred if users develop strong password habits and tools like password managers.
  7. Stay up to date and follow best practices: Given the right incentives, anyone can fall prey to a phishing attack. Sharpen cybersecurity know-how with regular security training sessions and briefings. Make sure to regularly check the newest best practices as phishing tactics continuously evolve.


Why is DMARC the most effective way to assure protection for everyone? 

To really fortify your security efforts and ensure 360-degree protection, organizations are highly encouraged to implement DMARC authorization protocols and solutions

DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance) is the gold standard for strong email authentication. It ensures that only authorized senders can send emails using your domain and restricts unauthorized users from malicious acts such as email spoofing, phishing, and spear phishing. It’s so important that multiple federal governments, including the US, UK, and Germany, require it for all government email.

It combines and leverages the email authentication standards SPF and DKIM. As a website or business owner, you want to ensure all visitors or recipients will only view emails that you personally have sent or authorized. DMARC is the most effective way to completely secure your email and ensure that every email is intentional, safeguarded, and free of cybercriminal activity. 


Bonus: Not only do DMARC solutions safeguard your email activity, it can positively impact your organization’s reputation and brand. DMARC effectively protects your brand by thwarting unauthorized parties from sending malicious emails, preserving your brand’s voice and integrity. Additionally, DMARC reports provide increased visibility and transparency into your email activity. This level of visibility allows you to identify and further prevent any suspicious acts.


How Valimail Helps Protect Your Organization

Both regular phishing and spear phishing campaigns have the power to damage an organization’s credibility. 

Given the right email security, phishing attacks can be averted with simple protocols.

At Valimail, we provide automated DMARC configuration for organizations of all sizes, boosting deliverability rates and protecting brand integrity from spoofed emails. Valimail optimizes DMARC enforcement so organizations can rest assured knowing only authorized senders can reach out to customers, partners, and employees. 

Thanks to our user-friendly authorization tools, DNS configuration requires little to no technical expertise. Just set your authorization once and keep your domain secure forever.

In addition to added security, our easy-to-use platform provides detailed analytics and rich, real-time supplemental data to help you get the outreach you need.

Protect yourself with Valimail and start your free account today.

Subscribe to our newsletter