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spear phishing email - what is it and how can you prevent it and protect yourself? 2

Spear Phishing Email: What Is It & How Can You Prevent Them?

With advancing technology and popularising Internet communication, cyber threats rise as well. And one of the most cleverly designed web threats is spear-phishing emails.

Spear phishing is a cybercrime where attackers use specifically designed emails to target individuals or businesses. Cybercriminals use advanced techniques to collect their targets’ personal data to appear trustworthy and familiar. Stealings sophisticated data or spreading malware is the main target of spear-phishing emails. 

Spear phishing attacks are much more successful than generic phishing emails. According to a report from FireEye, “spear-phishing emails had an open rate of 70 percent. Further, 50 percent of recipients who open spear-phishing emails also click on enclosed links, which is 10 times the rate for mass mailings.”

So, how does spear-phishing work? What can you do to prevent them? Let’s discuss.

Spear Phishing VS Phishing

The two main differences between spear phishing and phishing are the target and email content. The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) defines phishing as “a form of social engineering that uses email or malicious websites (among other channels) to solicit personal information from an individual or company by posing as a trustworthy organisation or entity.” Phishing attacks are not targeted towards an individual, instead sent to many targets at once. They are not personalised towards their victim, unlike spear-phishing attacks.

In spear-phishing attacks, attacker target a specific victim and usually spends a sizeable amount of time studying the target. The emails are crafted cleverly to manipulate the victim and lure them into sharing personal data with the perpetrator. Spear-phishing emails can impersonate someone you know or an organization you’re involved with. The emails also include personal information to gain your trust, which they acquire during the “studying the target” phase of the attack. Personalisation also makes spear-phishing attacks harder to catch and more successful than phishing attacks.

How Does Spear Phishing Work?

Spear-phishing attacks have improved a lot in the last few years, making them more challenging to identify for the average user. In the first part of the attack, the attacker gathers as much personal information as they can about their target. Usually, this information comes from social networking sites, profiles on a company website, activity on public forums, etc. From these sources, they collect your email address, personal connections, location, new purchases, and more personal data. The final step is to write a convincing email, usually impersonating a friend or family member or even a company you recently interacted with. Attackers typically include personal information to make the email more convincing.

The subject line of the spam email will sometimes include a sense of urgency or a lucrative offer to motivate you further to open them. The content of the email will consist of an email link or attachments. The link will take the target to a website where they are prompted to provide private information such as login credentials to different accounts, credit card numbers, PINs, etc. The attachments can have malware to take control of your device and access personal data.

5 Ways to Prevent Spear Phishing Attacks

Limit your email address visibility

Spear-phishing attackers usually get your email address when it’s visible on the web, either on social networking sites or from other spam lists. If they don’t know your email address, they cannot target you — as simple as that. To prevent spear-phishing attacks, the first thing you need to do is to keep your email address out of the attacker’s reach.

To check your email address visibility, go to Sniff Email — an online platform dedicated to finding out if your email address exists on the Internet. Enter your email address in the search field and click fetch to find out if your email address exists on the web within a few seconds. Based on the results, you can take appropriate action to remove it.

Avoid posting personal information on the Internet

As mentioned before, attackers scour through the Internet to gather your personal information, either shared by you or others. The increased social media activity in today’s world has also made it easier for attackers to collect your personal information and use it against you. To protect your privacy, avoid posting sophisticated information about yourself on the web. Even if you do share something, make sure only your trusted group of people has access to them.

Update software on your devices

Next time you get a software update on your phone or your computer, don’t click on Remind me later and tap the Install and update now. Most software updates include security software updates to protect you from potential threats.

Be cautious before opening an email

The tricky thing about spear-phishing is that it’s smartly designed. So, to prevent being scammed by these attacks, you need to be smarter. Next time you get an email from your friend asking for urgent help, think about why they wouldn’t reach out to you via phone call or in-person if it really were urgent? Rationalization is the best way to tell a phishing email apart from a legitimate email.

Do not click on email links

Never click on an email link without confirming the source. If an organization sends you an email asking you to click on a link that appears to be their website, don’t click on the link. Instead, go directly to the website. You can also place your mouse on the link without clicking to reveal the URL attached to the anchor text. If the URL doesn’t match the text, there is a high chance that it is a phishing link.

Spear-phishing emails are a powerful and effective tool for cybercriminals to steal your personal data or install malware on your devices. However, you can protect yourself against these cyberattacks by implementing email security practices.

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