What is Phishing?

Phishing is a kind of cyber attack in which an attacker tries to get sensitive information from you by disguising as someone else. A phishing attack can be carried out via email, through a text message, or via phone. The attacker can pretend to be your bank or a company you are familiar with, such as Google or Microsoft. By pretending to be a legitimate person or entity, the attacker tries to lure you into revealing sensitive data such as usernames, passwords, and credit card info.

What does a Phishing Email Look Like?

The good news is that most phishing emails follow a similar pattern. By discerning this pattern, you can identify and catch phishing emails. Some of the common features of a phishing email include:

Unknown Sender

Phishing emails typically come from an unknown sender. Sometimes, the screen name of a sender may look like very legit. But once you hover the cursor on the name or see the email details, you realize that it’s a completely unknown email address.

Unbelievable Offer

Most phishing emails come with an unbelievable offer. You have won a large sum of money or a lucrative prize such as an expensive smartphone. The attractive award is meant to trick you into clicking the attachment or the suspicious link in the email. Always remember that if the offer seems too good, it probably is false. Especially so when it comes from someone or something you haven’t contacted in lieu of a contest.

Urgent Response Required

This is another popular feature used in phishing attacks. The attacker offers you something lucrative and then creates a sense of urgency. Something like ‘You must respond within 24 hours to claim your $1 million prize.’ Then there’s the other variety ‘If you don’t reply and update your information in 24 hours, we will shut down your account.’ If you receive an email along these lines, simply ignore it.

Suspicious Attachment

If an email from an unknown sender has an attachment, it likely contains a virus or malware. If an email from a known sender has an attachment which you weren’t expecting, make sure you verify it with the sender before opening it.


Hyperlinks are a popular tool in phishing attacks. A fake hyperlink can be formatted to masquerade as a genuine hyperlink. You can see the actual link by hovering the cursor over the link. In some cases, attackers use clever combinations of characters. For instance, www.rnastercard.com may be touted as the link of Master Card but it actually uses a combination of ‘r’ and ‘n’ in the place of  ‘m.’ In a quick glance, you may believe the link and click on it especially if you use Master Card and expect such an email.

What is Spear Phishing and How Does it Work?

In contrast to regular phishing, spear phishing is a more targeted form of phishing. In spear phishing, the attackers target a specific organization or individual. The goal is to steal the data of the victim and then exploit this data, compromise privacy, seek ransom or perform other fraudulent acts. Spear phishing attacks may also be part of a larger cyber scheme – it can be used to install malicious software on an organization’s computers and then secretly steal business information on an ongoing basis.

When the target is a specific person or individual, the attackers can use social engineering attacks far more effectively. The public information, habits, preferences and other details of the target can be used to craft a custom social engineering hack. This is why many organizations and individuals fall for spear phishing attacks.

How to Defend Against Spear Phishing Attacks?

Spear phishing attacks are quite hard to counter. This is because each phishing attack is customized to its target. So there are no hard and fast red flags for such attacks. The best way to counter spear phishing attacks is through awareness and training. If your employees are aware of such attacks and expect them, they may be in a better position to identify and combat them.

Various tools and techniques can also be used to ramp up email security of the employees. Better email security can flag suspicious emails by checking them against known cyber threats and phishing methods.

How is Spear Phishing Different from Phishing?

Phishing attacks are broader in scope and launched at a large number of users. This is why they usually come with a run-of-the-mill format and outlook. The attacker may disguise as a known bank, a major company or a trusted business to get your attention. The ultimate aim is to steal your data such as usernames and passwords.

Spear phishing is more specific, targeted and customized. As it is aimed at a particular individual or organization, an attacker is able to make it more effective. The hook of the attack is tailored to the details of the target. The attacker may use personal details, habits, preferences and other information of the victim to convince the victim to trust the scam.

This is precisely why spear-phishing scams are more prevalent and much harder to counter. In fact, successful spear phishing scams cause 95% of the enterprise network attacks.