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What is spear phishing and how do you prevent it?

Read our guide to find out what spear phishing is, why it’s a problem for organizations and how to prevent it.

spear phishing

In today’s digitally connected world, where most businesses rely heavily on online communication and transactions, the risk of falling victim to sophisticated cyber attacks is ever-present. One of the most common online threats is known as spear phishing, a targeted and deceptive tactic employed by hackers to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information or performing actions that compromise their security.

Due to the increasing sophistication of these attacks, and their alarmingly high success rates, businesses must understand the nature of spear phishing as well as the proactive measures they can take to safeguard themselves from hackers.

In this blog, we will cover:

  • What is spear phishing and how does it work?
  • How is spear phishing different from phishing and whaling?
  • A brief history of spear phishing
  • Different types of spear phishing
  • Why is spear phishing a problem for organizations?
  • A real-life example of a spear phishing attack
  • How to detect spear phishing
  • How to respond to spear phishing attacks
  • How to prevent spear phishing attacks
  • Final thoughts

What is spear phishing and how does it work?

Spear phishing is a type of cyber attack that involves targeted email or electronic communication sent to specific individuals or organizations. It’s a more sophisticated and personalized version of regular phishing attacks, in which the attacker uses tailored research to craft their messages.

The main objective of spear phishing is to deceive the target by creating a sense of familiarity or trust. Here’s how it typically works:


  • The attacker conducts thorough research on the target.
  • Information is often found on social media, professional networks, or company websites. 
  • This helps them gather specific details about the target’s interests, relationships, job role, or affiliations.


  • Using the gathered information, the attacker tailors the phishing message to appear more legitimate and personalized. 
  • They may address the target by name, mention their job position, or refer to recent events or projects related to the target’s work.


  • The attacker typically spoofs the email address to mimic a trustworthy source. 
  • They may use a domain name similar to the target’s organization or forge the sender’s display name.

Deceptive content

  • The content is designed to manipulate victims into taking specific actions. 
  • It may include urgent requests, enticing offers, notifications about security breaches, or requests for sensitive information, such as passwords or account credentials.

Social engineering

  • Spear phishing often exploits human psychology via social engineering to increase the likelihood of success. 
  • They may create a sense of urgency, instill fear, or appeal to the target’s curiosity, to prompt immediate action without thinking critically.

Payload delivery

  • The email may contain malicious attachments, such as malware-infected documents or links to fake websites.
  • When the target interacts with these elements, they inadvertently provide the attacker with access to their system or sensitive information.


  • Once the target takes the bait, the attacker can exploit the compromised system or stolen credentials. 
  • This may include unauthorized access, spreading malware or ransomware, conducting financial fraud, or launching further attacks.

How is spear phishing different from phishing and whaling?

Spear phishing, regular phishing, and whaling are all forms of phishing attacks, but they differ in their targets and levels of sophistication:

Regular phishing

Regular phishing is a widespread attack method that involves sending mass emails or messages to numerous individuals in the hopes of tricking some recipients into sharing sensitive information or taking certain actions.

These attacks aim to ensnare as many victims as possible. The emails are often generic and impersonate popular websites or services. Regular phishing attacks do not target specific individuals or organizations.

Spear phishing 

Spear phishing is a targeted attack that focuses on specific individuals or organizations. The attacker gathers information about their targets, including their name, job position, or affiliations.

The messages are crafted to appear personalized, and the content is often tailored to exploit the target’s interests, relationships, or recent activities, making detection more challenging. Spear phishing attacks are more advanced and have a higher success rate compared to regular phishing attacks.


Also known as CEO fraud, whaling is a specialized form of spear phishing that targets high-profile individuals with significant authority or access to sensitive information. 

The attackers impersonate a trusted colleague, business partner, or even the CEO to trick targets into performing detrimental actions that could lead to financial losses or data breaches.

Whaling attacks manipulation of power dynamics within an organization. They often involve urgent requests for wire transfers, confidential information, or access to critical systems.

A brief history of spear phishing

In the early 2000s, cyber criminals began to recognize the potential of personalized attacks. They exploited the trust individuals had in electronic communication and used social engineering techniques to gather information. These messages aimed to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information or downloading malware.

With the rise of social media and the sheer amount of personal information available online, spear phishing became even more sophisticated by the mid-2000s. Attackers targeted specific groups, using personalized email messages to lure victims into providing confidential information or performing malicious actions. 

Today, spear phishing attacks are even more advanced. Attackers employ highly personalized tactics, leveraging research and exploiting vulnerabilities through as many communication channels as possible. They impersonate trusted entities, exploit timely events, and may combine spear phishing with other techniques. 

As awareness and cybersecurity measures improve, attackers adapt their techniques to exploit emerging technologies. To stay ahead of potential threats, organizations and individuals must remain vigilant and implement robust security measures. 

Different types of spear phishing

Bad actors use a diverse number of strategies to target individuals and organizations. And attackers are constantly adapting their tactics to exploit human vulnerabilities and deceive their targets.

Here are some of the most notable types of spear phishing:

Credential phishing

  • Targets users of online services, including email providers, social media platforms, banking websites, and other login-based platforms.
  • Aims to trick individuals into providing their login credentials by posing as legitimate entities. 
  • Attackers may create fake login pages or send emails with links to spoofed websites, tricking victims into entering their credentials, which are then captured by the attacker.

Business Email Compromise (BEC)

  • Targets employees responsible for financial transactions or confidential data.
  • Aims to deceive employees into transferring money or sensitive information to fraudulent accounts or individuals.
  • Attackers use social engineering tactics to impersonate business partners, suppliers, or executives. 
  • They may manipulate email headers and domain names, or use domain spoofing to make the emails appear legitimate.


  • Targets government officials, celebrities, and so on. 
  • Aims to gain access to valuable data or personal information from executives or public figures. 
  • Uses sophisticated and tailored emails to exploit the target’s interests, relationships, or recent activities. 
  • These emails may appear to come from trusted sources or contain seemingly legitimate attachments or links.

Angler phishing

  • Targets individuals seeking immediate assistance or solutions.
  • Aims to exploit urgent situations to trick targets into providing information or downloading malicious files. 
  • Attackers pose as customer support representatives or technical experts, reaching out to offer assistance or resolve an issue. 
  • They leverage fear, urgency, or curiosity to prompt victims.

Dropbox/Google Drive phishing

  • Targets Dropbox or Google Drive users. 
  • Aims to steal login credentials or spread malware through file-sharing programs. 
  • Attackers send emails that mimic legitimate file-sharing notifications, prompting victims to click on malicious links, which leads to a fake login page where the victim unwittingly reveals their credentials.

Whaling with spoofed lawyers

  • Targets high-profile individuals, executives, or employees involved in legal matters.
  • Aims to deceive individuals into taking specific actions or disclose sensitive information by impersonating lawyers or legal representatives.
  • Cybercriminals pose as legitimate law firms or attorneys and exploit legal concerns, pending lawsuits, or sensitive legal matters to coerce victims into sharing confidential information or initiating unauthorized transactions.

Why is spear phishing a problem for organizations?

Just one successful phishing attack can derail an organization’s entire operation. Here are a few reasons why spear phishing poses serious challenges and risks: 

Targeted attacks

Attackers conduct research to gather information about their targets, enabling them to craft highly personalized and convincing messages.

This level of targeting increases the level of trust and, consequently, the chances of success. Organizations may suffer financial losses, data breaches, or reputational damage if their employees fall victim to these attacks.

Data breaches and loss of intellectual property 

Once attackers successfully deceive an employee, they can gain access to valuable data, trade secrets, customer information, or financial records. This can lead to data breaches, financial fraud, or theft of intellectual property. 

Business disruption

Successful spear phishing attacks can disrupt normal business operations.

For instance, if an attacker gains control over an employee’s account or computer, they can potentially distribute malware, ransomware, or other malicious software within the organization’s network. This can lead to system outages, loss of productivity, and the need for costly recovery measures.

Compromise of employee credentials: 

If an employee unknowingly provides their login credentials, attackers can gain unauthorized access to internal systems, email accounts, or cloud services. This can allow the attacker to perform various malicious activities, such as unauthorized transactions, data manipulation, or further exploitation within the infrastructure.

Damage to reputation and trust

If an organization falls victim to a spear phishing attack, it can result in reputational damage and loss of trust from customers, partners, and stakeholders. The disclosure of a successful attack may erode confidence in the organization’s ability to protect sensitive information, potentially leading to customer churn and negative publicity.

A real-life example of a spear phishing attack

The 2016 cyber attack on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the U.S. presidential election is a recent example of a successful spear phishing attack. The attackers sent seemingly legitimate emails to DNC employees, posing as trusted entities, such as colleagues or reputable organizations.

These emails contained malicious attachments or links. Once a recipient clicked on the attachment or link, it initiated the download of malware onto their computer systems. Attackers used social engineering tactics and personalized messages to deceive the targets into believing the emails were legitimate.

By compromising several high-level employees, attackers gained unauthorized access to sensitive information, including emails and documents. The stolen information was later leaked, leading to public controversy that impacted the election campaign.

How to detect spear phishing

No form of detection is foolproof and detecting spear phishing attacks can be especially challenging since they are carefully crafted to appear legitimate and bypass traditional security measures.

However, here are some tips for early detection:

  • Be vigilant about email and message content with unusual phrasing, generic greetings, or grammatical errors.
  • Verify the sender’s email address, display name, and any other identifying information to ensure it’s not a spoof.
  • Hover your cursor over links without clicking on them to check for URL authenticity.
  • Be cautious of urgent or unusual requests, especially those asking for login credentials, financial information, or sensitive data.
  • Be wary of opening attachments, especially from unfamiliar or unexpected sources.
  • Be alert to any unusual behavior within email communications such as unexpected password reset notifications.
  • Invest in robust cybersecurity measures like strong email filters, anti-phishing tools, and spam detection systems.
  • Hire an external cybersecurity team who provides phishing attack simulation services to safeguard your organization in the face of malicious actors and social engineering threats.
  • Provide comprehensive security awareness training to educate employees about the risks of spear phishing and how to identify suspicious emails or messages.

How to respond to spear phishing attacks

If you suspect or detect a spear phishing attack, it is crucial to respond promptly and appropriately. Here are some recommended steps to take:

  1. Do not engage or click on suspicious links: refrain from clicking on suspicious emails, links, or attachments to prevent system compromise.
  2. Report the incident: immediately notify your organization’s IT or security team so they can investigate the incident, take necessary action, and provide guidance on the next steps.
  3. Preserve evidence: preserve any related evidence, including the suspicious email, headers, and relevant information, to assist in investigations and potential legal proceedings. 
  4. Change passwords: proactively change passwords for all accounts connected to the targeted email or service, ensuring strong and unique passwords for enhanced security.
  5. Implement security measures: follow the guidance of your organization’s IT or security team and implement additional measures to bolster account protection. 
  6. Educate others: educate colleagues about the spear phishing attack and foster a culture of cybersecurity vigilance by empowering others to report potential threats.  
  7. Review and improve security practices: take the opportunity to assess your organization’s security practices and implement the necessary improvements. 

How to prevent spear phishing attacks

Preventing spear phishing attacks requires a multi-layered approach that combines technological measures, employee education, and proactive security practices.

Here are some key preventive measures:

  1. Implement strong email security measures: use advanced filters and anti-phishing tools to block malicious emails.
  2. Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA): add an extra layer of security with MFA for all relevant accounts.
  3. Conduct regular security awareness training: train employees to identify and respond to spear phishing threats.
  4. Verify requests independently: encourage independent verification of unusual or urgent requests.
  5. Keep software up to date: regularly update all software with the latest patches and security updates.
  6. Use strong, unique passwords: instruct employees to use strong and unique passwords for their accounts. 
  7. Enable account activity monitoring: implement systems or tools to monitor user account activities for suspicious behavior. 
  8. Conduct phishing simulations: test and train your employees’ awareness skills with regular simulated phishing campaigns
  9. Implement network segmentation and access controls: segregate data and apply access controls based on least privilege.
  10. Regularly review and update security policies: continuously assess and update security policies to address emerging threats.

Final thoughts

Thousands of phishing attacks are recorded every day. Although hackers attempt to deceive unsuspecting users on a daily basis, many tech-savvy users no longer fall for the average ploy. However, a more sophisticated, personalized, and highly targeted form of cyber threat has emerged. And its success rate is much higher.

To protect against spear phishing attacks individuals and organizations must adopt a proactive approach, remain vigilant, and follow security practices. This involves being cautious of unsolicited emails, verifying the authenticity of requests through alternate channels, and regularly updating security software.

Although prevention is key, implementing a swift and coordinated response plan is equally as crucial. But if you really want to know how your organization will respond to an attack, you need to put your security system to the test.

CovertSwarm offers expert cybersecurity guidance along with phishing attack simulations. To learn more about our services, reach out to a member of our team