What is Spear Phishing?

It is considered to be the most potent form of attack, learn how you can prevent these attacks.

Email Security >Phishing

What is Spear Phishing?

Among different cyberattacks, spear phishing poses the most potent threat. Unlike standard “Spray and Pray” phishing, spear phishing is a highly targeted and deceptive form of attack. It integrates sophisticated social engineering techniques, often going unnoticed by its target. 

In addition, according to Symantec’s Internet Security Threat Report(ISTR), 65% of attackers relied on spear phishing attacks. So, it’s highly important to understand what spear phishing is to create a protective shield against it.

By Cian Fitzpatrick | 16th November, 2023

animated picture of hacker with mask sitting behind a laptop

Spear Phishing Definition

Spear phishing is a type of phishing attack that targets highly specific individuals or roles within an organisation to acquire sensitive information. Spear phishing is much more effective than a standard phishing attack. The attacker does intensive research on their target and uses social engineering techniques to craft a message to make it seem to be from a legitimate source. For instance, they collect personal information about a target and send messages disguising themself as a trustworthy friend to acquire sensitive information.

Types of Spear Phishing Attacks

Some of the major spear phishing types are:

1. Whaling Phishing

It is a highly targeted attack that targets high-profile or high-ranking individuals such as C-suite executives or board members. It also involves non-corporate targets such as celebrities or politicians. Attackers aim to fetch large sums of cash or acquire confidential information that can be used against them—no wonder it requires more research than any other form of spear phishing attacks.

2. Business Email Compromise(BEC)

  • CEO Fraud

The threat actors impersonate or hack into the email account of a senior executive, typically a CEO. And instruct lower-level employees to wire money into fraudulent accounts by creating a sense of urgency to make them act abruptly.

  • Email Account Compromise(EAC)

Attackers gain access to lower-level employees to send fraudulent emails and trick other employees into sharing confidential information. EAC is often used to acquire the credentials of senior executives to perform CEO fraud.

Barrel Phishing

It is a phishing attack where scammers send emails to a large number of recipients, pretending to be from a legitimate source. The scammers anticipate that at least one recipient will click on the link to steal sensitive information.

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How Does Spear Phishing Attack Work?

Spear phishing attack works in various stages; they are:

Selection of Target

Scammers choose individuals or organisations they want to target based on their goals, whether their goal is to gain large sums of money or sensitive information.

Use of Reconnaissance Technique

Before commencing the attack, the scammer gathers detailed information about the victim using social media platforms.

Crafting Email

By using gathered information, scammers craft a personalised email to make it look as if it’s from a legitimate source. This causes the target to immediately lower their guard. For instance, it could be a coworker, manager, or a trustworthy friend of the target.

Call to Action

Fraudulent emails often have a call to action to create a sense of urgency to ensure the attack works 100% of the time. In the heat of the moment, the target will click the link or download an attachment. This action can lead to serious consequences, including identity theft, data breaches, ransomware attacks, corporate espionage, etc.

Covering Footprints

After the attack, the scammer removes every trace of the attack to evade detection and prolongs access to the system.

Common Targets of Spear Phishing Attacks

Spear phishing attacks involve detailed research of a high-value or high-profile individual. Even though they are often time-consuming, they yield a higher anticipated reward than standard phishing attacks. Commonly targeted individuals of spear phishing attacks are:

High profile individual

Scammers target high-profile individuals like CEOs, politicians or celebrities to steal their sensitive information.

Lower-level or New Employees

Lower-level or newer employees often fall victim to phishing attacks, as they are frequently unaware of policies or procedures they must follow to prevent spear phishing attempts.

Specific Group or Types of Employees

Scammers target employees with access to sensitive or confidential information, such as HR or finance executives.

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Spear Phishing Characteristics

Some of the characteristics of spear phishing are:

Targeted Recipients

Spear phishing employs highly personalised messages to target specific individuals or organisations. These messages focus on high-profile or high-value individuals, promising substantial rewards. Spear phishing targets specific individuals, unlike standard phishing, which targets a high volume of individuals.

Personalised Messages

Scammers on various social media platforms conduct intensive research on their targets to formulate emails that create a sense of familiarity, often leading to the disclosure of sensitive information.

Sophisticated Tactics and Techniques

Scammers use reconnaissance and social engineering techniques to carry out spear phishing attacks. The reconnaissance technique involves intensive gathering of information on a target. At the same time, social engineering techniques involve the manipulation of personality traits to make the target perform a certain action.

Common Objectives

Spear phishing takes on various forms, but the goal remains the same: extracting sensitive information such as credentials or credit card information.

Links to Malicious Websites or Files

Scammers use phishing emails, which include links to malicious websites or files created by threat actors, to extract sensitive information when recipients click on them.

Common Techniques Used in Spear Phishing Attacks

Some of the characteristics of spear phishing are:

Social Engineering Techniques

Spear phishing attacks thrive on social engineering techniques. They manipulate personality traits such as desire to be helpful or curiosity about events or news. Individuals let their guard down easily with this technique, enabling threat actors to leverage the situation to extract sensitive information.

Suspicious Emails and Phone Calls

Attackers, using generic or misspelt domains in their emails, disguise themselves as legitimate entities to reach out to their targets through emails and phone calls.

Malicious Emails with Attachments or Links

Scammers use social engineering techniques to deceive people into clicking on malicious emails containing attachments or links. Clicking on these emails releases malicious codes onto the computer. This enables scammers to steal sensitive information or spread malware.

Whaling Attacks Targeting Key Executives or Company Secrets

In whaling attacks, attackers target high-profile individuals, typically C-level executives like CEOs or CFOs. These individuals can access sensitive information like company secrets, financial data, etc.

animated vector of man sitting with a mask on, on a table with laptop

Signs of a Possible Spear Phishing Attack

Becoming a victim of spear phishing attacks can result in severe consequences, such as financial or reputational damage. Therefore, paying attention to indicators of potential spear phishing attacks is essential.

Unsolicited Emails from Unknown Sources

Getting unsolicited emails from unknown sources out of nowhere is a dead giveaway of a phishing attempt. Handle these emails carefully and avoid clicking on suspicious links or attachments.

Poorly Worded Messages that Seem Suspicious or Out of Place

Scammers use reconnaissance techniques to intensively analyse a target to create a personalised message. So, even if the message seems to be from a trustworthy source, check the tone and overall look. And compare it to the previous message from the same sender. If the tone seems unfamiliar, ignore the message or contact the sender to verify the legitimacy of the message.

Requests for Sensitive Information such as Bank Accounts, Passwords, or Credit Card Numbers

If you receive a sudden request for sensitive information, it could be a phishing attempt. These days, companies are aware that requesting sensitive information via email is risky, so they rarely do so.

The Dangers of a Successful Attack

Successful phishing attacks can result in severe consequences for a company. Some of them are

Financial Loss

Threat actors frequently steal sensitive credentials or send fake invoices to trick people, causing serious financial losses.

Reputational Damage

Phishing attacks can tarnish the image of a company for years to come. Phishing attacks show that the company’s system is compromised, making it seem like associating with the company is risky. That’s why recovering from reputational damage is tough; sometimes, it’s beyond repair.

Customer Loss

Loss of customers often follows reputational damage. Customers don’t like associating with a company that doesn’t have a robust system to protect their interests.

Regulatory Fines

Companies must secure sensitive customer information. If they compromise it, they will be liable for any resulting damage. Under UK GDPR, mishandling and misusing data can lead to fines up to £17.5 million or 4% of an organisation’s annual global turnover, whichever is greater.

Disruption of Operations

Phishing attacks can disrupt the flow of operations in an organisation. Reconfiguring and maintaining the system after a successful phishing attack can take days, resulting in a loss of employee productivity.

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Phishing vs Spear Phishing vs Whaling

Phishing attacks encompass spear phishing and whaling attacks. A standard phishing attack is broad and untargeted, while spear phishing and whaling target specific individuals. In comparison, these attack types exhibit an obvious difference in their methods or targets. Yet, the goal remains the same: to acquire sensitive information like credentials, financial data, or company secrets.

Spear Phishing vs. Phishing

Spear phishing and phishing have distinct differences but share the same goal: to extract sensitive information. In standard phishing, attackers use the “Spray and Pray” technique, which means attackers send out phishing emails to a large number of random individuals, hoping someone will click on that link or share sensitive information. In contrast, attackers work very hard on spear phishing as the rewards are typically high. They use sophisticated techniques to create highly personalised messages targeting specific individuals. As a result, spear phishing emails often go largely undetected.

Spear Phishing vs. Whaling

Spear phishing and whaling both fall under the category of phishing. But unlike standard phishing attacks, spear phishing and whaling are more researched and personalised. However, the key difference is that spear phishing targets individuals with a lower profile, while whaling focuses on high-ranking individuals such as CEOs, CFOs, and other executives.

Spear Phishing Examples

Here are some prevalent spear phishing examples that everyone needs to be on the lookout:

Fake Website

Phishing emails include links to a fraudulent website that is designed to trick targets into entering their credentials.

CEO Fraud

The attacker poses as a senior executive, typically a CEO. They instruct lower-level employees to perform urgent actions like wire money into fraudulent accounts or provide sensitive information.

Malware Attachments

Phishing emails often include suspicious links or attachments, so avoid clicking on them. To check the link’s legitimacy, hover your cursor over the link to view the actual address.

Brand Impersonation Attacks

Usually, attackers impersonate renowned brands or service providers to steal credentials and spread malware. These emails often contain a link that leads the victim to a fake site where attackers can easily steal information.

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Spear Phishing Prevention

It is challenging to mitigate spear phishing attacks due to their highly targeted and personalised nature. However, businesses can adopt comprehensive steps to combat spear phishing attacks; they are:

Two-factor authentication

As the name suggests, the verification process necessitates two distinct factors. The first factor is a password, while the second factor can include a text code sent to smartphones, security tokens, or biometrics. Even if attackers obtain passwords, it’s insufficient to get access to email.

Security Awareness Training

Spear phishing works by taking advantage of human traits through various social engineering tactics. In addition, Verizon’s Data Breach Investigations Report(DBIR) revealed that 82% of data breaches result from human error. So, even after implementing robust security, attackers can breach the security through human error. That’s why it’s essential to provide employees with spear phishing awareness training through simulated spear phishing attacks. As a result, it helps employees recognise phishing emails.

Password Management Policies

Implementing password management policies is essential to prevent attackers from security breaches. Some of the best practices of password management policies are:

  • Avoid using the same password in all logins
  • Use random numbers, letters, or phrases in the password
  • Avoid sharing passwords in texts, phones, or emails


Use Security Software

Spear phishing uses sophisticated techniques that can easily evade detection, even after intensive training. It’s advisable to invest in advanced security solutions to reinforce your defence. These solutions help detect suspicious emails before they reach employees’ inboxes, providing an additional layer of protection against such attacks.

How Topsec Can Help?

Topsec offers customised cloud-based solutions designed to secure your email infrastructure effectively against cyber threats. Topsec achieves multi-layered protection by integrating AI and machine learning models to detect malicious emails, ensuring ultimate protection.

Spear Phishing FAQ's

The primary difference between a spear phishing attack and a standard phishing attack is that spear phishing uses highly personalised emails. That’s why spear phishing attacks require much more effort than traditional phishing. Additionally, spear phishing attacks have significantly higher chances of success and greater reward value.

The Cyber Security Breaches Survey 2022 suggests that 39% of businesses in the UK suffered cyber attacks, with 83% of threats classified as phishing attempts. It shows that companies are targeted almost every day.

Spear phishing uses social engineering techniques to craft highly personalised emails, so detecting spear phishing emails is tough. However, there are certain signs that you can look out for.

  • Spelling or grammar mistakes
  • Emails that create an unusual sense of urgency
  • Unsolicited Emails from Unknown Sources
  • Requests for Sensitive Information such as Bank Accounts, Passwords, or Credit Card Numbers

While it’s impossible to create a bulletproof security system, there are certain ways to maximise the level of protection against spear phishing. They are:

  • Practicing strict password management policies
  • Providing security training via simulation of real-life scenarios
  • Implementing robust email security software
  • Use of two-factor authentication system

Spear phishing represents a low-volume, high-reward attack. Attackers conduct intensive research on their target to craft highly personalised emails that appear trustworthy. This significantly raises the likelihood of malicious emails evading detection and leading to severe consequences.