Staying a step ahead of cybercriminals is a difficult task. However strong your security program may be, hackers work constantly to breach your defenses and access the personal information of your employees and clients. 

Known tactics are always evolving, and preparedness for one attack does not mean you will be protected in the future. This is often the case with phishing schemes and “spear phishing,” a more refined technique that many times succeeds where its predecessor would fail. Below we’ll discuss both techniques, their similarities and differences, and how you and your company can be best prepared for each. 

What Is Phishing?

Phishing is a social engineering attack method that cybercriminals use to manipulate their victims into revealing confidential data. This is usually done through email, where the hackers mimic known companies and lure recipients to a malicious link (usually under the guise of a security breach from well-known companies like Microsoft or Google). 

Once the target clicks on the link and goes to a bogus destination page, the attackers prompt the target to enter his or her login credentials — giving the attackers easy access to your networks and systems. This basic breach can lead to malware installation and viruses, data theft, and future cyberattacks once the thieves have learned your system. 

What Is Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing is a specific phishing tactic that pursues an individual target and lures him or her with more personal details in the initial email. The name itself is a clever pun; whereas “phishing scams” cast a large net, “spear phishing” hones in on a specific individual with increased accuracy. 

For example, a spear phishing attempt might include the target’s name, or imitate a superior who has questions on an ongoing project. This requires more effort on the part of the hacker, but the attack has a far higher chance of success. 

Phishing vs. Spear Phishing: Key Differences

Traditional phishing involves sending messages to a large number of people knowing that most recipients won’t take the bait. By aiming for a larger demographic, the attackers are playing the odds that at least one person will be fooled. 

The targeted nature of spear phishing attacks make them far more insidious and dangerous. The goals of spear phishing are also usually more specific than in ordinary phishing schemes. 

In a phishing attack, the perpetrators are usually looking for any information or access they can get; attack first, plan later. Spear phishers have specific goals in mind. Perhaps they’re looking for information on financial statements, or for intelligence on your company’s security measures. 

Some spear phishing attackers may even research the structure of your organization on social media or LinkedIn. Then they will pose as upper management and ask for wire transfers or credit card information from staff. This particular spear phishing technique is known as Business Email Compromise (BEC). 

Spear phishing attacks may also take longer to execute. A blanket email to your entire company can be accomplished in a matter of minutes, whereas the research and sophistication of a spear phishing attack requires time. Spear phishing attacks may also take place over an extended period, gaining the target’s trust before requiring sensitive information or moving on to ransomware or other blackmail techniques. 

How to Protect Against Phishing & Spear Phishing Attacks

Although these threats are dangerous, you are by no means helpless against them. Here are some techniques to stay ahead of cybercriminals and ensure that your data is protected:

Promote awareness. Staff training is critical to preventing these kinds of attacks. Even the most tech-savvy person can be fooled by spear phishing, so spreading awareness of the danger and emphasizing vigilance from your staff will help keep would-be hackers at bay. Educating your employees about new advances in cybercrimes can help them spot warning signs and delete phishing attempts before they can cause any harm. 

Encourage use of multi-factor identification: Requiring this simple step of your staff can be an incredibly effective tactic for data protection. By using both a password and an additional method of authentication (say, a one-time permission code texted to the employee’s cell phone), it’s more likely that only the person intended to access the account will get in. Even if one of your employees does fall for a phishing scam, hackers will be unable to push through this additional line of defense. 

Use technology: Email security solutions like filters or firewalls will catch many phishing attempts before they reach your employees; but these defenses are not foolproof, and can be evaded by more advanced spear phishing techniques. AI is increasingly being used in this area, both to recognize spoofed emails and to prevent additional attacks using compromised accounts. 

Technology can also transform your cybersecurity and compliance processes. ZenGRC is an innovative platform that allows you to streamline and centralize your company’s risk management. Our software features automated alerts and workflows that allow you to track risks throughout your entire organization with full transparency between departments. 

ZenGRC is compliant with a variety of frameworks and third-party applications, making it a valuable asset no matter what industry you’re in. Schedule a demo today and learn in just five minutes how ZenGRC can help defend your company’s sensitive data against cyber threats.