When it comes to cyber crime, hackers like to locate the most high-value targets, whether it’s a piece of infrastructure or an individual with access to privileged information, all while expending the least effort possible. In most examples of spear phishing attacks, a criminal will send out targeted attacks via email to multiple users.

In these emails, the attacker will use high-pressure manipulation tactics to trick the target into providing them with personal information. This tactics is usually carried out with emails containing malicious malware, ransomware or spyware attachments or links to a phishing site.

In fact, research shows that in 2021, 83% of organizations experienced a successful email-based phishing attack in which a user was tricked into clicking a bad link, downloading malware, providing credentials or completing a wire transfer.

This article will look at what spear phishing is, including seven examples of spear phishing attacks, and share guidance on how cyber security leaders can help their employees from being caught out by manipulators.

How does spear phishing work?

Spear phishing is where a cyber criminal sends an individual an email, SMS message, or voice call designed to manipulate them into handing over their login credentials, personal details or transferring money.

These types of scams are highly effective because the attackers will typically impersonate the recipient’s boss, colleague, friend, family member, bank, or popular online store to make them feel at ease giving over sensitive information.

In many cases, the scammers will imply or threaten that unless the individual acts immediately there will be negative repercussions, such as the shutdown of an account, legal charges, or other financial penalties.

While many think these scams are easy to spot, the reality is that anyone can fall victim to them, unless they’ve undergone regular training on how to spot the techniques that attackers use.

5 Examples of Spear Phishing

Below are some of the most common examples of spear phishing threats you’re likely to encounter:

1. Fake websites

A cyber criminal will design a carefully-worded phishing email which includes a link to a spoofed version of a popular website. The website imitates the layout of the original site to trick the victim into entering their account credentials.

2. CEO Fraud

An attacker will take control of an email address familiar to the employee, such as their company’s CEO, Human Resources Manager, or IT admin. The hacker will assume this individual’s identity andask them to complete an urgent action, such as transfering funds, updating their personal information, or installing a new app.

3. Malware

In these types of phishing attacks, an attacker will try to trick an employee into clicking on a malicious email attachment. Usually,this type of attack is carried out with a fake invoice or delivery notification.

4. Smishing

An SMS-based phishing attack where a hacker will send an SMS or voice message asking the recipient to click on a link and update their account details, or change their password. The link will take them to a phishing website.

5. Vishing

An unknown caller will call the victim and leave a voicemail urging them to phone them back and hand over personal information, usually by impersonating someone from a trusted company.

Examples of Spear Phishing: Individual vs Business Spear Phishing Attacks

When looking at spear phishing attacks, it’s important to note that they are perpetrated against both individuals and businesses. During an individual spear phishing attack a cyber criminal will pretend to be a business the individual trusts, such as a bank or well-known brand like Amazon, to send them a “transaction confirmation” or “shipping notice.”

These emails are crafted to look important to trick the individual into opening the email and clicking a malicious link or sending confidential information the attacker can then use to commit further crimes.

On the other hand, during a business spear phishing attack, a hacker will target two to three company employees, sending messages to them, impersonating their boss, and directing them to transfer money, provide their login credentials or other confidential information.

The attackers will use high-pressure language, telling victims that if they don’t act quickly, the company will suffer further financial consequences.

Why You Should Incorporate Spear Phishing Simulations into Your Security Awareness Training

You’ll never know how prepared your employees are to detect phishing threats until you test them with real-world simulations. A phishing simulation that focuses on spear phishing tactics can help you to raise awareness of the associatedrisks and techniques cyber criminals can use to manipulate employees.

Conducting regular phishing simulations gives employees an opportunity to test their phishing awareness, and to see how effectively they can detect scams.

Users who fail to pass the tests can then be supported with additional just-in-time training material so they can better understand and become more confident identifying malicious emails, and improve the security posture of the organization.

Given that so many cyber criminals are targeting human users with manipulation attempts, phishing simulations are a valuable tool for enabling your employees to protect themselves and the enterprise as a whole.

How to Prevent Spear Phishing

Spear phishing is one of those cyber threats that security leaders must have a strategy in place to safeguard against. Otherwise, the organization’s sensitive information may be vulnerable to any number of spear phishing tactics.

Below are six ways to prevent spear phishing:

1. Educate employees

Start educating your employees about spear phishing threats. Take advantage of free phishing simulation tools to educate and identify spear phishing risks.

2. Use security awareness training

Provide proven security awareness training and phishing simulation platforms to keep spear phishing and social engineering risks top-of-mind for employees. Create internal cyber security heroes committed to keeping your organization cyber secure.

3. Monitor employee spear phishing awareness

Remind security leaders and cyber security heroes to monitor employee spear phishing awareness with phishing simulation tools regularly. Take advantage of phishing microlearning modules to educate, train, and change behavior.

4. Produce ongoing communication and campaigns

Offer employees ongoing communication and campaigns about cyber security, spear phishing, and social engineering. This includes how to create strong passwords and reminding employees about the risks of clicking on URLs and attachments.

5. Create network access rules

Establish network access rules to limit the use of personal devices and to restrict the sharing of information outside of your corporate network.

6. Ensure your environment is up-to-date

Ensure that all applications, operating systems, network tools, and internal software are up-to-date and secure. That includes installing malware protection and anti-spam software.


If you want to ensure your employees are equipped to stop spear phishing attacks, you need to educate them on the techniques that attackers use.

While you can educate employees with written materials, phishing simulations provide them with valuable real world examples of how attackers conduct attacks. As a result, end users learn how to spot them when they encounter them in future.



Want to find out how security awareness training can help your employees spot phishing threats?

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