There’s a lot of talk about massive viruses and other significant cyber-threats, but in reality, some of the most infamous and damaging cyber-attacks in recent history have started with just one employee innocently clicking on a spear-phishing email. These attacks are growing in number and frequency. Why? Because they work. And because traditional security strategies are not typically capable of detecting these threats, they continue to be a growing problem, particularly in the fields of finance, insurance, retail and health care.
We thought it was worth exploring more about what this type of cyber-crime entails and, more importantly, what you can do to protect your company from becoming the next victim.
What is Spear-Phishing?
The term spear-phishing is really a blanket term that encompasses any number of damaging exploits. It could be ransomware which is designed to encrypt and hold hostage the victim’s sensitive data for an extortion fee. Or, it could be malware that specifically targets a company’s financial data or customer information. In either case, the goal of most spear-phishing campaigns is to successfully obtain either personally identifiable information (PII) or network access credentials.
A spear-phishing campaign typically arrives in the form of a carefully crafted email message that is designed to appear legitimate enough to fool the recipient into opening an attachment or clicking on a link. You may be thinking that this sounds a lot like traditional phishing plots that we’ve all heard of for many years now. In reality, while the concept is the same, spear-phishing campaigns are actually much more targeted and calculating, which is why they’re generally much more dangerous.
Criminals who attack through spear-phishing carefully segment and pinpoint their victims to improve their chances of being successful in obtaining the information or data they’re after. They then create compelling and highly personalized emails that are designed to impersonate trusted senders – for instance, the IRS. And it’s not just low-level employees who are being targeted. To the contrary, many spear-phishing campaigns are developed and designed specifically for executives – leaders with high-ranking titles such as CFO, Senior VP or Head of Finance.
And if you think these situations are isolated, you would be incorrect. Recent studies have revealed that the vast majority of organizations admit to becoming victim of at least one spear-phishing attack in 2015 alone. And these attacks aren’t without damage. In fact, the average impact of a successful spear-phishing attack is estimated to be over $1 million. Even more alarming is that some victims saw their stock prices drop by as much as 15%.
What’s the solution?
So, what can organizations do to prevent such an attack from wreaking havoc on their reputation and bottom line? One of the reasons spear-phishing is so successful is because it is difficult to detect. Emails and even phony websites are specifically designed to slip through the cracks unnoticed until it’s too late. In these instances, the best offense is a good defense.
Start by educating your employees – from the top down. Remember – cyber security is everyone’s job, especially when it comes to phishing. Make sure everyone who works at your company is aware of the dangers and knows what to look for, how to be careful and who to contact if and when a potential issue arises.
Then, fortify your protection by leveraging the advanced technology that is available to you. That means not only deploying traditional monitoring programs, but also incorporating automation into the incident management process. That way should a threat get through and a successful spear-phishing campaign gain a foothold, the appropriate remediation measures can be triggered instantly and automatically. This will help to isolate the incident and mitigate damages.
As long as there are cyber criminals stalking the business world from behind their keyboards, there will always be things like spear-phishing. By being aware of what you’re up against and taking the appropriate proactive measures to limit the amount of damage that could potentially be done, you’ll effectively keep your organization safer and the sensitive data within as secure as possible.