Spear phishing attacks are targeted assaults aimed at specific individuals and enterprises to trick them into downloading malware or exposing sensitive information. Ramping up traditional phishing techniques to the next level, these attacks are particularly pointed and far harder to spot. Combining in-depth research of a company’s digital footprint, spoofed email addresses and social engineering tactics, hackers emulate trusted entities to fool their chosen victims.

Understanding advanced spear phishing techniques

If you’re used to spotting phishing emails because of their poor spelling and grammar or less than authentic attempts at illustrating a company logo, spear phishing tactics can still catch you out. These clever strategies employ far more polished content, and not only replicate logos and designs used by companies, but also the style of language they use in communications. Some spear phishing email examples uncovered in 2020 have been so advanced they featured links to other companies that have also been spoofed, creating a “double-blind” tactic, making them appear even more authentic.

Like standard phishing messages, attacks will often involve malicious downloads and links. An attached file may contain trojans, spyware and other forms of malicious software. Links, on the other hand, will direct recipients to spoofed websites. Typically, these resemble login pages where credentials can be harvested by cybercriminals and be used either by themselves, or be sold to other threat operators on the dark web.

Protecting your data from spear phishing

The same security protocols that are practiced for regular phishing emails still apply, whether an email appears to be from a trusted source or not. When sensitive information is requested via email, alarm bells should always ring. It is always worth remembering that most organisations and institutions in both government and banking sectors will never request personal data via email or embed a link for you to follow in their message content. Never follow links in emails – instead, visit websites via your secure browser.

Spear phishing can use a staff member’s digital footprint to exploit their company. Employees should be educated on limiting the personal details they leave exposed on websites, social media accounts and public forums. Just a personal profile including a job role and place of business will give hackers a wealth of information to impersonate an individual or assess if they are a potential target. Online accounts should be kept private wherever possible and security settings checked regularly. Hackers also use compromised email accounts to glean useful information for campaigns, so stepping up security with two-factor authentication and updating passwords regularly is advised.

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