Diana Kelley and Seema Kathuria of Microsoft would like to remind you that unlike wide-angle phishing, “spear fishing” is very highly targeted phishing. If it shows up for a user, someone was trying to put it there.
Microsoft also uses "laser" phishing to name the threat, a nod to the precise targeting that differentiates this kind of phishing effort from others. These very focused threats can be highly effective, but they aren't foolproof. With an appreciation for the structure of such a threat, counter-measures can be taken by the enterprise to protect itself against them.
The first thing a spear phishing attacker needs to do is identify specifically the victims of the campaign. These are usually individuals that have access to the data the attacker is after.
Microsoft says that to identify potential candidates for the attack, they will conduct extensive research. Some of the ways this happens involve:
"Review corporate websites to gain insight into processes, departments, and locations.
Use scripts to harvest email addresses.
Follow company social media accounts to understand company roles and the relationships between different people and departments."
They browse the website, social media and other digital sources for potential hooks. It takes the social skill set of a human attacker to derive what is needed in the campaign, though they may be aided by some automatic efforts like scripts. Machine learning is not yet up to this sort of task, though it may be some day.
To get a target to perform a desired action, a credible source must be used to request that the victim perform that action. The bloggers note that, "This could be someone who appears to be internal to the company, a friend, or someone from a partner organization. Research into the victim's relationships informs this selection."
They also have found that in many spear phishing campaigns the credible source is someone the victim knows.
Also, they observed that targeting executives by impersonating the CEO is increasingly common with some referring to it as whale phishing. This is logical since executives have more authority and access to information and resources than the average employee. Further, people are more likely to respond quickly when the boss emails.
So, the third attack step is for the victim to act on the request from the credible source. If the victim does respond to the call to action, open a malicious attachment, or visit an infected webpage, the one of the following bad outcomes typically happen:
- The machine could be infected with malware.
- Confidential information could be shared with an adversary.
- A fraudulent payment could be made to an adversary.
Any attempt to cause action that it outside normal routines or has an increased component of urgency may also be diagnostic of spear phishing./p>
While employees should be trained to detect as well as share suspicious emails with the security team, routine use of multi-factor authentication (MFA) blocks spear phishers from hijacking company resources, thereby limiting the damage they can cause.
Alertness and awareness remain the most important skills needed in the effort to protect against an attack like this.
— Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek.