Spear Phishing vs Phishing: Recognizing the Difference

Since the dawn of the internet, there have been threat actors looking to exploit systems, steal data, and compromise the integrity and reputation of people and the organizations they serve. Although there are many types of cyber attacks, phishing accounts for around 25% of all data breaches. 

What’s more alarming is that 70% of email users open and read phishing emails. If the email is targeting a specific victim — spear phishing — there’s an even greater risk of the victim taking the bait and opening the door for the threat actor to wreak havoc on their victim’s computer system and networks. Threat actors tend to target innocent people using both phishing and spear phishing attacks to compromise the systems and networks of their victim’s place of employment. Here, we’ll break down the difference between phishing and spear phishing and ways you can avoid such malicious threats.


Phishing vs Spear Phishing

What Is Phishing?

Phishing is a common hacking technique that falls under the category of cyber threats known as social engineering — tricking targets to perform an action or give information that the threat actor wants. Phishing.org defines phishing as a “cybercrime in which a target or targets are contacted by email, telephone, or text message by someone posing as a legitimate institution to lure individuals into providing sensitive data.”

Often, the message from the threat actor will use a scare tactic to get their target to take the desired action, such as clicking on a link or providing their login credentials. If the target takes the bait, the threat actor can proceed with their despicable plans.


What Is Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing is a phishing attack that targets specific individuals within a company — frequently as the beginning stage of an all-out attack on an organization. A targeted employee gets tricked into clicking on a malicious link or providing private data that the threat actor can then use to compromise cybersecurity protocols and penetrate the organization. 

A prime example is when a threat actor targets the middle management of an organization, claiming to be from the Human Resources department. The message could claim that there was — ironically — a data breach and the user must reset their password by clicking on the included link. The email message may use an employee’s name, as well as other information that will make the target trust the sender, and click on the link. 


How Is Spear Phishing Different From Phishing?

Although both attacks are types of social engineering, phishing is a broad, non-personalized attack while spear phishing is a calculated, target-specific attack. When it comes to spear phishing vs phishing, both are dangerous. However, the success rate of spear phishing attacks has increased despite a reduction in overall phishing attacks in 2020. This is because, in most scenarios, the spear phishing email is more believable and specially targeted for that user in mind.

A key difference between phishing and spear phishing is that spear phishing generally requires the threat actor to do research — pretexting — before using a personalized email template. In contrast, a phishing attack generally requires little to no research as the idea is to appeal to a general audience in the hopes of tricking as many people as possible. 

Recently, NFT email scams have become popular among threat actors. In these emails, there is no personalization. However, the “bait” is that a user can claim free rewards by clicking on a legitimate-looking link within the email.

A current trend in spear phishing is fake-job fraud in which threat actors pull information from job application websites and send personalized emails offering jobs or support to their targets.


Ways To Protect Your Organization from All Phishing Attacks

Regardless of the type of phishing attack, one thing is clear: threat actors are not going to stop trying, especially when successful organizations have the human element, which is exploitable. To protect your organization, you can take the following steps:

1. Use Antivirus Software

Although this is not the end-all-be-all of cybersecurity by any means, antivirus software programs can help close some security gaps and loopholes that would otherwise make it too easy for the bad guys to infiltrate your systems and networks. To further increase your cybersecurity posture, consider pairing antivirus software with routine vulnerability assessments and penetration testing.

2. Never Share Personal or Financial Information

Generally, you should never share personal or financial information. Even when you or your organization are doing well financially, be cautious about what you share and to whom. If you receive an email or message on an online platform that looks to be from a legitimate business, go ahead and research that business before interacting with them — especially if they have requested information about your organization or have asked you to click on a link. 


3. Implement Security Awareness Training

Security awareness training can help your employees guard against phishing and spear phishing attacks by teaching them caution and a proactive approach to cybersecurity. With cybersecurity awareness training, you can turn vulnerable employees into your last and best defense against threats of all kinds.


Elevate Your Security by Recognizing the Threats

Knowing how to recognize threats is the first step towards improving your security measures to stay one step ahead. You and your employees should be able to understand the difference between spear phishing vs phishing attacks as well as other attack types so that you can take the appropriate action at the right time. 

If you’re ready to take your cybersecurity to the next level, learn to avoid cyber threats with Mitnick Security.

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Topics: spear phishing, spear phishing attack, phishing, phishing attack, phishing scams

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