Cyber Security

What is spear phishing email fraud?

15th May 2023 | 6 min read

For individuals and businesses, cyber risks are unfortunately now part of everyday life.

A study from PwC in 2021 found that two-thirds of UK organisations have been victim to fraud. And data from the UK government in 2022 shows that phishing is the most common type of cyber attack facing businesses.

Spear phishing is a specific form of phishing, where employees are targeted by criminals wishing to infiltrate their organisation. It’s increasingly common in the workplace and can bring serious consequences.

In this blog, we explore spear phishing in more detail and explain how it can be prevented.

What is spear phishing?

Spear phishing happens to thousands of people across the world every day.  It’s an online scam, often targeting employees from specific businesses. The intent is to steal intellectual property, financial information, trade secrets and other confidential data via an innocent email that arrives in their inbox.

Spear phishing involves a highly targeted email or electronic communications attack. Cyber criminals will send an email that appears to be from a friend or colleague, encouraging the recipient to unknowingly download malware, click on malicious links or send sensitive personal or professional information. These emails are personalised, making them appear as convincing as possible.

Unlike generic phishing emails, which are often poorly written, spear phishing emails are carefully crafted.

Although the email initially may seem genuine, the sender is actually a criminal hacker known as a ‘spear phisher’. They will have previously gained your name, email address and a little bit of information about you to prevent their email causing any alarm or being intercepted by spam filters.

In 2017, several London and US art galleries were targeted in a spear phishing attack. Email conversations were hijacked following the sale of artworks and informed the buyers that the previous invoices were made in error, instructing them to make a payment into the hacker’s accounts instead. Fraudsters also ran the scam in reverse, sending emails from the artists’ email accounts to their respective galleries, requesting payment for artwork to be made to fraudulent accounts rather than the artist’s account.

The success of the attack shows the very real threat of spear phishing on businesses and the consequences if someone were to mistake an attack for a genuine email.

What are the dangers of spear phishing?

Spear phishing poses significant threats to your business, especially if one of your employees falls for it.

In this scenario, these are some of the repercussions you may expect to face:

  • Data breaches: Spear phishing emails often try to steal login credentials or trick users into downloading malware. If successful, attackers can gain access to sensitive company data, including financial records, intellectual property, and customer information. In many cases, attackers specifically target roles with access to this information, such as finance, HR or IT team members.
  • Financial losses: Data breaches can lead to significant financial losses. Businesses may have to pay fines for regulatory non-compliance, hire data breach response teams and compensate customers whose information was compromised. In some cases, stolen data can also be used for fraudulent financial transactions.
  • Disruptions: Spear phishing attacks can disrupt business operations. If attackers gain access to a critical system, they may encrypt files, delete data or launch denial-of-service attacks that make it impossible for employees to work.
  • Reputational damage: A successful spear phishing attack can damage a company’s reputation. Customers and partners may lose trust in the business if they believe their data is not secure.

How can spear phishing be prevented?

Although the threat of spear phishing is intimidating, it can also be preventable with a two-pronged approach of user awareness and effective tools.

Increasing user awareness

Your first line of defence is your staff. Educating your teams and improving awareness can significantly lower the risk of anyone becoming victim to a spear phishing attack.

Remind people to exercising good email practice at all times, such as never revealing sensitive information like personal, health or financial information in reply to an email,  regardless of who it is from. They should also never click on links in emails which risk personal or financial information. Email addresses should also be thoroughly checked, as often phishing attempts may use addresses with only small differences from the recipient they’re trying to impersonate.

If someone believes they have received a spear phishing email, it should be reported to your IT department to warn others who may also receive it.

Investing in security tools

Alongside internal education, you need security tools that reduce the threat. Examples of tools include email filtering software, email authentication protocol and multi-factor authentication. You’ll also need to keep your software and apps up to date with the latest patches to prevent weak points.

Microsoft Office 365 is an industry leader when it comes to anti-phishing capabilities.

It has a built-in anti-phishing feature which is offered as part of Microsoft Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection. Incoming messages are evaluated by multiple machine-learning models that analyse the message to detect impersonation attempts, unsafe attachments or links. It also protects your business according to the policies that are set by your Microsoft Office 365 global or security administrators.

There is also an Attack Simulator to help you test realistic attack scenarios within your organisation. This can help you identify and find vulnerable users before a real attack impacts your bottom line.

Three types of attack can be simulated including spear phishing, password-spray and brute force password attacks.

Protect your business

The threat of spear phishing looms large, especially given the negative repercussions an attack can bring.

That is why it’s critical to protect your business thoroughly. And we’re here to help you.

Infinity Group are IT security specialists with knowledge across all core cyber security areas. Whether you’re concerned about phishing or other threats, we can provide practical guidance to strengthen your IT network and eliminate vulnerabilities.

We can also deploy specialist technologies, enabling you to meet best practice and GDPR requirements.

Speak to our expert team about your needs before an attack occurs.

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