Spear Phishing: Explanation, Examples and Protection

You already know about Phishing: the process of putting in some bait and waiting for someone to divulge his/her personal information. Phishing comes in many flavors like Spear Phishing, Tabnabbing, Whaling, Tabjacking, and Vishing and Smishing. But there is yet another type, and that is Spear Phishing.

You may have already come across Spear Phishing. When using this technique, cyber criminals send you a message from an entity that you know. The message asks you for your personal and financial information. Since it appears originating from a known entity, you just reply without a second thought.

What is Spear Phishing

What is Spear Phishing

Spear Phishing is a method where cyber criminals use a targetted technique to dupe you into believing that you received a legitimate email from a known entity, asking you for your information. The entity can be a person or any organization that you deal with.

It is easy to make it look original. People just have to purchase a related domain and use a subdomain that looks like the organization you know. It can also look like the email ID of a person you know. For example, something.com can have a subdomain named paypal.something.com. This allows them to create an email ID that goes support@paypal.something.com. This looks pretty identical to email IDs related to PayPal.

In most cases, cyber criminals keep an eye on your activities on the Internet, especially on the social media. When they get any information from you on any website, they’ll grab the opportunity to extract information from you.

For example, you post an update saying you bought a phone from Amazon on any social networking site. Then you receive an email from Amazon saying your card is blocked and that you need to verify your account before making any more purchases. Since the email ID looks like Amazon, you readily give away the information they ask.

In other words, Spear Phishing has targetted Phishing. The email IDs and messages are personalized for you – based on information available on the Internet about you.

Spear Phishing Examples

While phishing is a daily thing and many are familiar with it enough to stay protected, some still fall prey to it.

One of the best and popular spear phishing examples is the way RSA unit of EMC was targeted. RSA was responsible for the cyber security of EMC. The cyber criminals sent two emails, each with an EXCEL file containing an active MACRO. The title of the email was said to be Recruitment Plan. While both the emails were filtered into the Junk Folders of employees, one of the employees got curious and retrieved it. When opened, the MACRO opened a backdoor for the people who sent the email. They were then able to procure credentials of employees. Despite being a security firm, if RSA could get tricked, imagine the life of unsuspecting regular Internet users.

In yet another example concerning a cyber security firm, there were emails from third parties that tricked managers into believing that it was their employees asking for details. When the cyber criminals got the information by posing as employees over email, they were able to get money transferred from the company to criminals’ offshore accounts. It is said that Ubiquity lost over $47 million due to the spear phishing scam.

Whaling & Spear Phishing scams are the emerging cyber-security issues. There is a thin line of difference between the two. Spear Phishing targets a group of people – like an email that targets employees of a company, customers of a company, or even a specific person. Whaling Scams typically targets high-level executives.

Spear Phishing protection

Always remember that no e-commerce company will ask you your personal information via email or phone. If you receive any message in any form asking you for details that you don’t feel comfortable sharing, consider it a spear phishing attempt and cut it off directly. Ignore such emails, messages and switch off such calls. You can confirm with the organization or person before responding in future.

Among other Spear Phishing protection methods, is to share only as much as is needed on social networking sites. You can say it is a photo of your new phone and post it instead of adding you bought it from XYZ organization – on a certain date.

You have to learn to identify Phishing Attacks to know more about protection from phishing in general. Basically, you should have a good security software that filters your email well. You can add email certifications and encryptions to the email clients that you use so that you are better protected. Many of the spear phishing attempts may get caught with certificate-reading programs built into or installed to the email client.

Stay safe, stay sharp when online!

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Anand Khanse is the Admin of TheWindowsClub.com, a 10-year Microsoft MVP Awardee in Windows (2006-16) & a Windows Insider MVP. Please read the entire post & the comments first, create a System Restore Point before making any changes to your system & be careful about any 3rd-party offers while installing freeware.