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Spear Phishing vs Phishing: The Differences and Examples

Knowing the difference between spear phishing and regular phishing emails can help prevent data breaches. Click here to discover how Valimail can keep your email secure.

What are the differences between spear phishing vs. phishing? Phishing (and spear phishing, for that matter) 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 phishing 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 phishing and spear phishing below.

Spear phishing

Spear phishing is a more advanced form of phishing. Spear phishing is 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.

Scammers often use social media to legitimize their requests 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 manipulating employees into revealing sensitive data or committing unauthorized actions such as wire transfers to fraudulent companies.

Scammers of this nature commonly employ two methods of attack: 

  1. 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.
  2.  CEO fraud: Targeted attacks against junior employees where the attacker impersonates a senior authority (for example, the CEO) or other high-level colleagues. They then pressure the reader into taking unauthorized actions. 


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 will 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 happen in many different ways, including:

  • Vishing: Phishing over phone calls or downloaded internet protocols (Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP).
  •  Smishing: Phishing over text messages, also known as SMS phishing. Just as with computers, hackers can infect phones 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.

Difference between spear phishing vs phishing

While spear phishing and phishing share a lot in common, they both threaten your business with different risks—and the security measures you take to defend against them differ. Here’s an at-a-glance list of differences between spear phishing and standard phishing:

  • Attack style: Spear phishing attempts to attack a specific individual using social engineering tactics, while standard phishing casts a wider net and attacks at scale.
  •  Personalization: Spear phishing takes time to understand the target and personalize the message, while standard phishing tends to be more general and less personal.
  •  Urgency: Spear phishing seeks to gain trust and get individuals to take action, while standard phishing usually uses urgency to get individuals to take action without thinking first.

7 tips to protect from spear phishing & phishing

It takes just one act to infect a computer and potentially compromise an entire organization. Fortunately, the right tools and information can thwart even the most invasive attacks. 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 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 can only access your data if they’ve authorized entry on every single authentication channel. In almost all cases, they won’t be able to do this.

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.

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. Most people use recycled passwords at home and in the workplace, which poses a serious security risk.

Fortunately, users can deter cybercriminals by developing 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.

How DMARC safeguards your entire business

Organizations are highly encouraged to implement DMARC authorization protocols and solutions to fortify their security efforts and ensure 360-degree protection.

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 emails.

It combines and leverages the email authentication standards SPF and DKIM. As a website or business owner, you want to ensure that 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, but they 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 DMARC safeguards your entire business

Both regular phishing and spear phishing campaigns have the power to damage an organization’s credibility. The right email security can avert phishing attacks 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.