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Spear Phishing

Definition: Spear phishing is a targeted form of phishing where cyber attackers focus on a specific individual, organisation, or business, usually leveraging gathered information to craft seemingly legitimate and highly personalised messages to deceive recipients into divulging confidential information, clicking on malicious links, or opening infected attachments.

Spear phishing forms a significant threat due to its tailored and deceptive approach. Unlike broad, indiscriminate phishing campaigns that target large groups, spear phishing attackers conduct in-depth research on potential victims to increase the likelihood of success. They may use social media, public records, and other sources to gather personal data, which helps them impersonate trustworthy entities and create credible lures.

This method is particularly effective as the personalised nature of the messages can often bypass typical user scepticism and evade some traditional security mechanisms. The success of a spear-phishing attack can lead to serious consequences, including data breaches, financial loss, and the installation of malware such as ransomware or spyware.

To defend against spear phishing, organisations must employ a combination of technical controls like email filtering, anti-malware and anti-phishing solutions, and multi-factor authentication, as well as continuous user education and training to raise awareness of such threats. Regular security drills and simulated phishing exercises can also help individuals recognise and appropriately respond to spear-phishing attempts.

Key Characteristics:

  • Highly targeted at individuals or organisations
  • Personalised content to appear as legitimate communication
  • Can lead to significant data or financial loss
  • Combated through awareness, training, and technical security measures


  • Real-World Example: A notable example of spear phishing occurred during 2016, when attackers used a spear-phishing email to gain access to the email accounts of members of the United States Democratic National Committee, resulting in a significant data leak.
  • Hypothetical Scenario: A finance officer in a midsize company receives an email that appears to be from the managing director, requesting an urgent wire transfer to a supplier. The email contains specifics about recent discussions and timely projects. It’s only after the transfer has been made that the finance officer realises the communication was fraudulent.

Related Terms:

  • Phishing: A broader term describing the deceptive attempt to obtain sensitive information by pretending to be a trustworthy entity in a digital communication.
  • Social Engineering: Manipulative tactics that include various forms of deceitful interaction such as spear phishing to obtain confidential information.
  • Whaling: A subtype of spear phishing that specifically targets high-profile individuals like senior executives, CEOs, and other senior positions.
  • Email Spoofing: A tactic often used in spear phishing where attackers forge the sender’s address in an email to make it appear as if it’s coming from a legitimate source.

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