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Spear Phishing

Chapter 4

June 15, 2024
8 min

What Helps Protect From Spear Phishing?

Spear phishing is one of the most prevalent and dangerous cybersecurity threats for modern businesses. For example, Belgian Bank Crelan once lost $75.8 million due to CEO fraud (a form of spear phishing), and the second half of 2022 saw a 61% rise in spear phishing

Spear phishing involves targeting specific individuals or organizations with personalized and convincing messages designed to trick the recipient into taking a particular action or providing sensitive information. The consequences of falling victim to a spear phishing attack can be devastating, with the potential for financial loss, reputational damage, and data breaches.

To limit the risk of a breach, staying up-to-date with the latest best practices for protecting against spear phishing attacks is essential. This article will explore six key best practices for protecting against spear phishing attacks.

Summary of best practices to protect from spear phishing attacks

By implementing these best practices, organizations can reduce the risk of spear phishing attacks and protect themselves from potential harm and the financial, reputational, and legal consequences of a successful attack.

Best practice Description
Implement email security protocols Implementing email security protocols such as DMARC, DKIM, and SPF can prevent spoofed emails from reaching the intended targets.
Leverage existing SEGs Using built-in Secure Email Gateways (SEGs) or similar functions in cloud hosted email services to filter out spam and known phishing attacks.
Use advanced email threat detection and response tools These tools use machine learning and AI to automate the detection and remediation of suspicious emails before they can do harm.
Require two-factor authentication Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a security implementation that requires a user to provide two forms of identification before granting access to an account.
Conduct regular phishing simulation and security awareness training Organizations should provide employees with ongoing security awareness training that includes real-life examples of spear phishing and BEC attacks.
Run phishing simulations Creating fake phishing emails and sending them to employees to test their awareness and susceptibility to a variety of phishing attacks.

What helps protect from spear phishing?

Protecting against spear phishing requires a combination of technical controls, and awareness and training across an organization. The six best practices below cover spear phishing prevention's technical and human aspects and can help organizations effectively mitigate phishing risk.  

Implement email security protocols

Email is the primary channel used for spear phishing attacks. Therefore, it’s essential to reduce the risk of malicious emails reaching their intended targets. These three email security protocols are a fundamental part of reducing spear phishing risk:

SPF and DKIM are email authentication protocols that help to verify the authenticity of email messages and reduce the risk of email spoofing and phishing attacks. DMARC builds on top of these protocols to provide even stronger email authentication and protection, allowing domain owners to specify policies for handling failed SPF and DKIM checks and receive feedback on their email authentication setup. Implementing these protocols can prevent spoofed emails from reaching their intended targets by verifying the authenticity of the sender's domain.

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Leverage existing SEGs

Utilizing the built-in security features available in cloud-hosted email services such as Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace offers traditional rules and policies that are designed to filter out spam and known phishing attacks.

These SEGs are often customizable, allowing businesses to tailor the filtering settings to their specific needs, thereby further enhancing their email security by filtering through all the noise/junk emails received, which includes spam, grey mail, updates, and promotions. A bulk of that is spam, so with less spam in the inbox, employees will have more time to be careful when "going through" their real and important email messages.

Use advanced email threat detection and response tools

While existing SEGs are useful, they cannot prevent every spear phishing attack. Modern threats, like BEC (business email compromise), often require more advanced email threat detection and response tools. Using AI-based anti-phishing software can help to detect and respond to spear phishing attacks in real-time, reducing the risk of successful attacks and minimizing the impact of those that do occur.

Signature-based solutions are not effective against the ever-changing phishing threats. Advanced email threat detection and response tools can adapt to the new tactics of attackers and the normal activity of each inbox by constantly scanning and analyzing emails.

Another type of phishing solution is a crowdsourced threat intelligence platform. It involves leveraging the collective knowledge and experience of a community of security professionals to identify and respond to potential threats. For example, the IRONSCALES crowdsourced threat intelligence platform allows organizations to tap into this collective intelligence by enabling users to report suspicious emails for instant rescanning by IRONSCALES AI and ML tools and review by their company’s IT Security administrators. When admins review a user-reported email, they can access the analysis of 20,000+ other admins for guidance on how to classify the reported email.

The platform also uses machine learning algorithms to analyze the reported emails and identify patterns and trends that may indicate a spear phishing campaign. Once a potential threat is identified, the platform can automatically quarantine the email and similar and evolving variants. This is especially useful as the volume and complexity of spear phishing attacks are increasing year by year.

Require two-factor authentication

Implementing two-factor authentication (2FA) is essential in protecting against spear phishing, business email compromise (BEC), and account takeover attacks. Two-factor authentication requires a user to enter two forms of identification before granting access to an account, such as a password and a code that can be sent to a mobile device. This can prevent attackers from accessing accounts even if they have obtained login credentials through a phishing attack. Two-factor authentication increases the security of accounts and systems, making it much harder for attackers to gain unauthorized access.

Different two-factor authentication methods, such as text message codes, mobile apps, smart cards, or biometric factors like fingerprints or facial recognition, can be used. The choice of method depends on the organization's security requirements, resources, and the level of convenience desired for users. The current “gold standard” for 2FA uses FIDO2 authentication, a method that is near impossible for attackers to intercept.

When implementing 2FA, ensuring the process is user-friendly is essential, so employees are more likely to adopt it. Some tips for ensuring user-friendliness include making the authentication process simple and easy to use, offering alternative authentication methods in case one method fails, and providing clear instructions and support.

Also, it is important to educate employees on the importance of 2FA and how to use it correctly. Many spear phishing attacks target users who have yet to enable 2FA, so it's critical to ensure that all employees know the benefits of 2FA.

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Conduct regular phishing simulations and security awareness training

In some cases, such as requiring 2FA and enforcing password policies, IT can mandate good security policies. However, policies alone aren’t enough. Education and training are essential to prevent spear phishing and business email compromise (BEC) attacks. Training should focus on how to identify and report suspicious emails, understanding the risks of spear phishing attacks, and using best practices for secure communications.

Employee training and awareness programs should be conducted regularly (monthly) to keep employees up-to-date on the latest threats and trends in spear phishing attacks. In addition, they should be interactive and engaging to maximize the impact of the training. Examples of effective training methods include phishing simulations, interactive workshops, and online training courses.

One of the essential aspects of employee training is teaching employees how to identify and report suspicious emails. This can include training on identifying phishing emails by looking for red flags such as unusual sender addresses, suspicious links or attachments, and urgent or threatening language. Employees should also be trained to immediately report suspicious emails to IT or security personnel rather than attempting to deal with them independently.

It's also essential to educate employees on the importance of limiting information shared publicly and how to do so effectively. This can include providing guidance on best practices for secure social media use and training on using privacy settings effectively.

Another critical aspect of employee training is teaching employees the risks of spear phishing attacks. This can include educating employees on the potential consequences of a successful spear phishing attack, such as data breaches, financial loss, or reputational damage.

Run phishing simulations

One of the benefits of phishing simulations is that they provide a way to measure the success of employee security awareness training initiatives. Organizations can identify areas where additional training or education may be needed by testing employee awareness and susceptibility to specific types of phishing attacks. This can help to ensure that employees are better prepared to identify and respond appropriately to real-world spear phishing attacks.

Additionally, phishing simulations can raise awareness and foster a culture of security within the organization. By creating a safe and controlled environment for employees to experience phishing attacks, organizations can help to drive home the importance of remaining vigilant and following best practices for email security.

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Spear phishing is a sophisticated and targeted cyber attack that can severely affect organizations and individuals. To protect against spear phishing attacks, it's essential to implement a range of best practices, including employee training and awareness programs, conducting phishing simulations, implementing fundamental email security protocols, and using advanced email threat detection and response tools. Additionally, implementing two-factor authentication can reduce the risk of spear phishing, BEC, and account takeover attacks.

It's essential to recognize that email attacks constantly evolve, and attackers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their tactics. As such, ongoing vigilance and investment in spear phishing prevention measures are critical.

As IT security professionals, it's crucial to prioritize spear phishing protection and work with organizational leadership to implement a comprehensive email security strategy. By taking a proactive approach, organizations can reduce the risk of falling victim to cyber-attacks and protect themselves and their stakeholders from potential harm.

Continue Reading this Series

Chapter: 3 Whaling Attack

Learn how to protect against whaling attacks by deploying email security protocols and investing in anti-phishing platforms, leveraging AI/ML models, activating AV/EDR/Sandbox solutions, enforcing MFA.

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Chapter: 1 Voice Phishing

Learn how to protect yourself from voice phishing attacks and mitigate their effects with security awareness training, policy creation, and cybersecurity best practices.

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Phishing Prevention

Learn how to combat sophisticated phishing threats with six essential phishing prevention best practices.

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Chapter: 11 Clone Phishing

Learn how Clone Phishing attacks work and the top examples and key best practices to defend against these attacks.

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Chapter: 10 Domain Spoofing

Learn how domain spoofing attacks work and the top mitigation and prevention strategies to avoid falling victim.

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Chapter: 9 Anti Phishing Tools

Learn how to protect your company against phishing attacks by discussing the benefits of anti-phishing tools like secure email gateways and malware sandboxes.

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Chapter: 8 Trap Phishing

Learn the different types of trap phishing and the best practices you can deploy to avoid becoming a victim of such an attack.

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Chapter: 7 Smishing vs Phishing

Learn how to identify and defend against smishing, phishing, and vishing with strategies such as user awareness training and caution with links and requests.

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Chapter: 6 URL Phishing

Learn best practices to protect against URL phishing, such as using a proxy, AI solutions, and using an anti-phishing service.

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Chapter: 5 Executive Phishing

Learn how executive phishing attacks specifically target high-value individuals within an organization to steal data or disrupt operations.

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Chapter: 4 Spear Phishing

Learn 6 key best practices to protect from devastating consequences of spear phishing attacks.

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Chapter: 2 Barrel Phishing

Learn best practices to detect and protect against barrel phishing, an attack where the attacker builds trust before making a malicious request.

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