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Cyber Security and NOC Knowhow™, in plain English

The Rise of Spear Phishing Attacks

Today, most individuals and organisations are familiar with what phishing attacks are and the impact they can have, financially and on business operations. If phishing wasn’t enough of a worry, you are now expected to have further protection against spear phishing attacks. These refer to more malicious emails which are highly targeted to the victim, often containing personal details designed to persuade them.

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As the name suggests, spear phishing is often applied when a criminal is targeting an individual using a more personalised tactic. These attacks can be VERY effective because the perpetrator can use tailored language to each user. As end users learn to better protect themselves, cyber criminals enhance their phishing techniques to get the most out of their targets.

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The sense of urgency

Spear phishing allows the criminal to personalise the attack in a particular way, it creates urgency in the user’s mind and forces the target to let their guard down. Imagine if your managing director emailed a few people, sending them an invite through Gmail, and the link in the email asks the user to sign-in to Gmail to attend the meeting. This method has been used by criminals to hack into certain accounts, it also isn’t the type of email you just ignore…

The idea is the same as phishing, using a malicious link to phish for confidential information.

According to the SANS Institude, 95% of all attacks on networks are the results of successful spear-phishing.

Why spear phishing?

Why do cyber criminals prefer spear phishing to standard phishing attacks? They have proven to be more effective. The attackers use research such as websites and LinkedIn as well as social engineering to create customised emails that individuals are more likely to open and accept. The most common objective is to have staff transfer money into a third-party bank account. You’re probably thinking, well that’s stupid – but you’d be surprised how convincing spear phishing emails can be.

Remember…

Spear-phishing methods are not a hack or a factor that can be blocked using technology. It relies on human nature to be successful and can only be prevented by creating user awareness and education.

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Why is spear phishing effective?

The combination of both technical and psychological factors makes spear phishing highly effective. They can look like normal business emails with normal business banter, this makes it difficult for spam detection systems to recognise it’s not a genuine email.

Spear phishers take their time and spend weeks/months building up the reputation of IP addresses and email domains by sending legitimate traffic and emails for some time to ensure they avoid the blocking lists.

The success of spear phishing also comes down to the human element and social engineering which plays on how people think and act. Trust is a natural and helpful part of the human mind, it is necessary to form working relationships.

It’s this trust element that phishers like to abuse. They take advantage of the fact that people are suggestively more likely to comply with orders from authority and people they trust.

How to prevent spear phishing attacks

If you’re unable to recognise a spear-phishing attack, then you may not realise that you’re losing data until it’s too late. If the cyber-criminal focuses on a particular person for long enough, they are able to gain access to critical data such as bank accounts and computer passwords.

Here are some useful tips to help you and your organisation:

  • Take advantage of artificial intelligence and implement a solution that blocks any suspicious emails from coming into your inbox.
  • Implement multi factor authentication so there is another layer of security over the simple usernames and passwords.
  • Train staff so that they are able to recognise and report different phishing attempts. Remember, Over 90% of cyber-attacks are successful because of employee error.
  • Prevent data loss by updating technology solutions and business policies so that sensitive data is blocked and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

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Located at the heart of a high security, controlled-access Tier 3 data centre, Comtact's state-of-the-art UK Cyber Defence Centre (SOC) targets, hunts & disrupts hacker behaviour, as part of a multi-layered security defence, to help secure some of the UK's leading organisations.

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