Five tips to avoid spear phishing attacks

James Dyer | 23rd Jun 2023

Cybercriminals make use of sophisticated tactics to craft convincing spear phishing attacks, and consequently, organizations need a solid understanding of the evolving cyber threat landscape to combat them.

Spear phishing is a form of phishing where cybercriminals use highly targeted emails to deceive individuals into revealing sensitive data or transferring funds. 65% of all known hacking groups use spear phishing, making it the most popular form of attack.

To create their spear phishing emails, attackers can research their targets extensively, often using open-source intelligence (OSINT). OSINT refers to information collected from publicly available sources, such as social media profiles, company websites, or public records. Cybercriminals use this information to craft attacks that seem legitimate to increase the likelihood of success. The high level of detail and personalization in these attacks makes them challenging to identify as malicious, even for vigilant recipients.

It is imperative to understand the mechanics of spear phishing and take necessary precautions to safeguard people, data, and organizations.

The difference between spear phishing and whaling

While spear phishing targets a broad spectrum of individuals within an organization, whaling attacks are directed at high-profile targets within the C-suite or other senior executives. These individuals typically have access to large amounts of sensitive information and more financial power, making them a lucrative target for cybercriminals. One documented whaling attack in 2015 cost FACC, a notable aerospace company, €50m.

Top tips for avoiding spear phishing attacks

With spear phishing becoming more prevalent, organizations and individuals need to fortify their defenses. The key to mitigating these cyberattacks lies in advanced email security solutions, as well as securing personal and organizational data with the right protocols, and fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness.

1. Bolster your email security

The best defense against spear phishing attacks is to implement an integrated cloud email security (ICES) solution, such as Egress Defend, which uses AI models, including natural language understanding (NLU) and natural language processing (NLP), as part of its detection capabilities. NLU and NLP analyze the language used in emails to detect all types of phishing attacks and are particularly effective for those that don’t contain a known malicious payload and therefore evade detection by traditional perimeter security, such as secure email gateways (SEGs).

Spear phishing attacks are difficult for people to catch on their own, no matter the level of training they receive. This is why it is vital for an organization to deploy an ICES solution.

2. Know the basics of spear phishing attacks

While intelligent technology offers the best defense against spear phishing, it is useful for people to understand the signs of an attack to protect them outside of work. Employees can look at the sender’s email address and check if there are any anomalies in the domain or subdomain that do not match the address they were expecting. Next, check the email body, looking out for spelling and grammatical errors, and to see if the email follows the same style as previous messages from the sender, or if the ‘sender’ makes any unusual requests, such as an urgent payment.

While these tips can be valuable, they do not replace the need for an integrated cloud email security (ICES) solution. For example, while checking the sender domain may help in some circumstances, bad actors can use compromised legitimate accounts to send spear phishing emails. These can bypass the reputation-based checks conducted by perimeter email security and the email address is genuinely correct, so the recipient is more likely to also believe the attack to be legitimate.

3. Limit sharing personal information online and secure social media profiles

Cybercriminals use OSINT to gather information shared on social media, in newspapers, and other publicly available sources. As a result, it’s advisable that people keep security and privacy settings up to date on all social media, as well as review them regularly to limit who has access to their information. Everyone should be cautious with what they share and not post anything overly personal, sensitive, or work-related if possible.

Employees should use strong, unique passwords for all online accounts, stored in a trusted password manager, and organizations should make use of multi-factor authentication (MFA) to enhance security.

4. Keep your system security up to date

Organizations should regularly update their operating systems, as software updates can contain patches to plug any security vulnerabilities. Without these patches, devices can be vulnerable to bad actors. Ensuring security systems are up to date will increase defenses against malicious attacks from delivery vectors other than email. It’s also important to remind employees to update their personal devices too.

5. Raise cybersecurity awareness in your team

People are the weakest link in the chain of cybersecurity defenses; a single click on a malicious link by an uninformed team member can lead to a successful spear phishing attack. Learning about the risks and how to spot these attacks is an essential prevention tool. Make regular cybersecurity awareness training sessions a cornerstone of your security strategy. Ensure everyone understands what to look for and how to react if a spear phishing attack happens. Arm your team with enough information to identify common red flags like misspellings and suspicious links, but beyond that, to question unexpected requests for information or to execute a financial transaction.

Improving cybersecurity awareness can help people both at work and in their personal lives, and it is often an important factor in organizations’ cyber insurance, compliance requirements, accreditation schemes, and customer/supplier contracts. Most security awareness training is delivered periodically via learning platforms in a one-size-fits-all approach. While this can be good for general awareness and for meeting the requirements mentioned above, there is also a significant benefit when training is delivered continuously and using real examples.

Egress Defend offers real-time teachable moments to educate employees using real (neutralized) phishing threats. Contextual warning banners are embedded in emails to raise awareness and engage users at the point of risk.

Finally, it’s also critical that everyone is empowered to come forward if they are targeted by an attack. A solid reporting protocol will enable colleagues to report incidents without falling victim, preventing future attacks safely.

Cybercriminals rely on the ability to manipulate people. Protect your business by staying updated on the latest phishing tactics and learn more about these attacks. A well-informed team can act as a robust line of defense against spear phishing attacks with the help of an integrated cloud email security (ICES) solution, turning potential vulnerabilities into strengths.

Check out our phishing hub to explore expert advice and information on this ever-evolving risk.