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7 Reasons Why Spear Phishing Attacks are Successful

7 Reasons Why Spear Phishing Attacks are Successful

Phishing/social engineering is the #1 cause of data breaches and the primary delivery method for ransomware.

While amateur phishing emails are easy to block, spear phishing attacks are becoming more sophisticated and harder to detect.



What is Spear Phishing?


A highly targeted form of phishing, spear phishing involves tailored emails being sent to well-researched victims while pretending to be a trusted sender. 


The most common goals of spear phishing attacks include:

  • Requesting a wire transfer
  • Taking over corporate accounts
  • Spreading malware or ransomware
  • Requesting sensitive or proprietary information
  • Stealing account login credentials

spear phishing



Why are Spear Phishing Attacks Successful?


These attacks are personalized and may refer to their targets by their specific name or job position. Attackers invest time in researching their targets and their organizations to craft a personalized message, often impersonating a trusted entity.


Here are 7 reasons why spear phishing attacks are so successful:


1. Spear Phishing Messages Target Their Victims


These messages are designed to look like they are sent by a manager or high-level executive. They also can be customized to look like they come from a trusted vendor that your company works with regularly.


2. Each Spear Phishing Email Looks Authentic


Hackers spend a lot of time and effort planning their spear phishing attacks. They design their fake emails to look as authentic as possible to trick recipients into thinking they are from a legitimate source.


This means using spoofed email addresses, business logos, design, and language that can pass as legit. Because they don’t share a lot of the similarities of traditional phishing emails, these messages are often missed by spam filters.


3. Businesses May Be Lacking Security Tools


Many companies don’t have their cybersecurity hygiene – security patching, email filters, firewalls, and anti-virus— current and up to date. This leaves businesses vulnerable to all types of threats, including spear phishing attacks.


4. Spear Phishing Attacks Happen Over Time


Spear phishers are patient with their targeted phishing attacks. They often use multi-stage attacks that involve malware downloads and data exfiltration which can be set up over weeks or even months.


According to CSO, spear phishing attacks can be broken down into three main steps:


  • Infiltration — This can be done by directing users to click on a malicious link that downloads and installs malware or leads them to a fraudulent website disguised as a real one that requests login information.

    Once the attacker gains control of the recipient’s username and password, if they do not have multi-factor authentication enabled (and unfortunately many organizations do not), they can log in to the account.

  • Reconnaissance — Once they have access to the account, the spear phisher monitors and reads emails to learn about the organization and identify key targets and opportunities.

  • Extract Value — Using the information and knowledge they gain over time, or even using the compromised email account itself the attacker can launch a targeted spear phishing attack.

    For example, they can send customers fake bank account information when they are about to make a payment.


5. Employees Are Uneducated about What to Look for in a Phishing Email

Companies must trust the safety and security of their business and customers to employees who may not know how to recognize a targeted phishing attack. The point of security awareness training is to educate employees on what is considered risky, what clues to look for that indicate a threat, and how to respond.


6. Spear Phishing Leverages Zero-Day Exploits

Zero-day vulnerabilities are unknown software flaws in browsers, desktop applications, and plug-ins. Until they are fixed and patched, they can be exploited by attackers to compromise systems and gain access to the network and other resources, including personal and financial data.


7. Not all Businesses Use Spam Email Filtering Designed for Phishing and Spear Phishing

There are advanced spam email filtering programs available that can be used to monitor and flag phishing emails. Using AI and behavior monitoring to find more threats, versus only matching to known documented email threats. These filters add an extra layer to your email security than just having the standard spam filters enabled. 



According to a survey from The Ponemon Institute, “80% of respondents are very concerned about the state of their companies’ ability to reduce email-based threats, but only 29% of respondents are taking significant steps to prevent phishing attacks and email impersonation.”




Spear Phishing and Email Spoofing


To trick recipients into thinking they are reading an email from a trusted sender, spear phishers use a technique called “spoofing” that allows them to impersonate a legitimate sender and email address.


There are three primary methods of email spoofing:


Display Name Spoofing: Display name spoofing impersonates the email’s display name but not the email address making the message look like it comes from a trusted source. It’s effective because many email clients, especially on mobile, show only the sender’s name but not the email address.


Domain Spoofing: With domain spoofing, a spear phisher appears to use a company's domain to impersonate a company or one of its employees. When an email address is an exact replica of a trusted sender, users are unlikely to recognize that the email is spoofed.


Cousin Domain: A cousin domain, which is also referred to as a look-alike domain is an email address that is nearly identical to a legitimate one, with only a slight modification. In the past, cousin domain spoofing attempts were more obvious, such as mIcrosoft.com instead of microsoft.com. Today, attempts are more advanced and difficult to spot, such as employee@mybusinessnameltd.com instead of employee@mybusinessname.com. These subtle changes can be extremely difficult to spot for busy staff who quickly read and respond to emails, especially when they are urgent in nature.



spear phishing

Image Courtesy of VadeSecure



Spam email filters should be a piece of your cybersecurity infrastructure. Protect your business email from advanced email security threats, including phishing, spear phishing, and malware. Keep in mind that the more layers of security you add mean more barriers between your network and a hacker. 


When in doubt, check it out.


If you receive a message that you think is spear phishing, we recommend notifying your Managed Service Provider or IT admin for further investigation.



Cybersecurity Training


Teknologize is a SOC 2 certified, Professional Technology Services company with clients throughout the Pacific Northwest. We have offices located in:

  • Tri-Cities, Washington 509.396.6640
  • Yakima, Washington 509.396.6640
  • Bend, Oregon 541.848.6072

Questions about your IT or Cybersecurity? Give us a call today!


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