How to Protect Your Organization against Spear Phishing Attacks

Studies have shown that 91% of all cyber attacks start with a phishing email. Cyber criminals use phishing emails to obtain access credentials, which they’ll then leverage to deploy backdoors or deliver ransomware. With the right approach, attackers can take advantage of a moment of weakness and trick your employees into opening a dangerous email. Once the mistake has been made, there’s little you can do to protect yourself.

Cyber criminals are constantly refining their tactics, finding new ways to fool employees. One of the most effective ones is called spear phishing because it involves intense customization for a specific institution. With traditional phishing, you can imagine a criminal group casting a wide net, sending out thousands or millions of identical emails. Spear phishing, on the other hand, targets a single enterprise or department with emails that have been specially crafted to seem legitimate. This extra attention to detail is what makes the practice so effective.

Today, spear phishing is the most common delivery method for advanced persistent threats (APT). The targeted, personalized emails trick employees into opening them. From there, the main thrust of the attack begins. Some phishing campaigns are meant to extract data. Others install malware onto a user’s computer. Whatever the final objective of the attack, your best bet is to stop it at its source. That’s why security leaders should be especially focused on phishing.

Why Are Spear Phishing Email Attacks Successful?

Phishing attacks continue to be so successful because hackers have learned to take advantage of weak points in human nature. Novel tools and strategies allow criminals to accurately imitate the types of emails that people regularly receive in their work accounts. A feigned familiarity and a realistic structure give phishing emails the appearance of credibility. When an apparently legitimate email appears on the screen, even the most scrupulous employee is liable to open it.

Today’s phishing attackers know how to capitalize on the brain’s tendency to make quick decisions. If every email were carefully scrutinized and considered, then attacks would rarely prove successful. The problem is that hardly anyone has the time to think so carefully about every email that comes across the screen. The typical modern worker checks their emails while juggling a dozen other tasks. With their mind overtaxed and discombobulated, they barely think of opening an email before they make the fatal click.

Attackers have also become experts in mimicking a group’s typical workflows. Your enterprise probably uses email to expedite key processes and optimize productivity. Accessing software, paying invoices, and collaborating with colleagues all occur through the medium of email. Unfortunately, bad actors can learn what types of emails your employees receive and imitate them. By impersonating service providers, vendors, or people within the organization, cyber criminals can sneak their way into your computer system.

Ever devious, hackers have also perfected the dark art of social engineering. Many phishing emails play on standard human emotions to launch a cyber attack. The email subject lines often include emotionally charged language, using terms like “overdue notice” and “immediate action required” to get the reader to click through without thinking. Some campaigns play on a person’s hopes and dreams, offering some tantalizing opportunity that turns out to be fake. This type of social engineering isn’t just cruel. It’s also an effective method for initiating a devastating cyber attack.

How to Prevent Spear Phishing & Defend Your Organization

Social engineering attacks usually come fast and thick. The average enterprise can expect to face hundreds of these malicious emails in a single year. That’s why any cybersecurity policy should have email security as a main priority. When emails serve as the main line of attack, you need to do everything you can to bolster security in the area.

The best way to prevent cyber attacks is by adopting a two-pronged approach to email security. Your efforts should focus on these key areas:

  • Employee training
  • Machine-intelligent protection

Neither of these approaches will be sufficient by themselves. Even the best-trained employees are sure to slip up from time to time, and even the most sophisticated automated defense systems might fail to block every single threat. Only by employing both approaches as well as possible can you boost your email security and maximize your chances of keeping cyber criminals at bay.

Ongoing Employee Training

The first line of defense against phishing is entirely human. By training your employees to spot attacks and avoid opening malicious emails, you can limit the scope of the threat. Awareness training might not be able to eliminate the danger of phishing attacks altogether, but it can certainly have a significant positive impact.

Don’t skimp on cybersecurity training for employees. Even expensive sessions will pay for themselves if they ever help a worker stave off an attack. Everyone who works within the organization should learn how to identify potential threats. Use simulators to show employees what an attack could look like, and create easy reporting procedures so that everyone knows how to react to a suspicious email. You should also review your training methods to make sure they’re effective and up to date.

Every enterprise needs protocols for confirming requests that could be part of an attack. Many phishing campaigns ask employees to pay an invoice or send a money transfer. You can use your company’s existing structures to create procedures for efficiently confirming these types of requests. If employees make sure that a request is legitimate before hitting “send,” you’ll avoid the worst consequences of many phishing attacks.

Machine-Intelligent Protection

Technology might be the cause of today’s cyber criminality, but it can also help provide a solution. Machine learning in particular has shown a remarkable capacity for identifying and neutralizing phishing-related threats. Automated platforms can scan an institution’s emails for suspicious or unusual activity. Combined with well-trained humans, these programs can help prevent devastating cyber attacks.

Machine learning, which falls under the umbrella of artificial intelligence, refers to the ability of computers to find patterns within sets of data. Your organization contains all sorts of patterns within its daily workflows. Certain people usually interact with each other online at particular times throughout the day. Some people always log on from a single location, while others are habitual travelers. A machine learning program will identify these tendencies.

Once an automated system has noticed the patterns within your enterprise, it can flag any apparent discrepancies. If someone suddenly emails a colleague who they don't usually contact, the system might note the interaction as a threat. When someone accidentally hits “reply to all,” the program could recognize the mistake. Any significant deviation from the norm is likely to produce a response from the machine. This type of constant vigilance goes far beyond what any human security team could manage.

Machine intelligence is most effective when combined with human oversight. Your cybersecurity team will have to decide what to do with messages once they’ve been flagged. Human investigators will have to look into suspected threats to see what’s really going on. What makes machine learning so important is that it catches more threats than people ever could and presents them in a way that makes them easier to investigate.

When you’ve got machines and people working together, you allow your enterprise to take a proactive approach in the fight against cyber attacks. There’s no need to sit back and let harmful emails rain down on your employees. With the right machine intelligence system in place, you can identify threats before they ever reach an individual’s computer.


In a world where cyber criminals are constantly improving their methods, you need to do everything you can to stay one step ahead of them. Today, spear phishing represents one of the biggest threats that any enterprise faces. Savvy criminals have abandoned generic spam in favor of personalized emails that target a particular institution. Your email security approach must take this new reality into account.

Luckily, there’s already an effective playbook for bolstering cybersecurity and protecting against email attacks. The first step is to train everyone within an agency or company to look out for suspicious emails. Then, invest in powerful machine intelligence that can help your security team mitigate threats. This two-pronged approach will allow you to take a proactive stance in the fights against digital crime.

In a dangerous online world, all you can do is give yourself the best chance of protection. You can’t make your institution entirely impregnable, but you can offer enough resistance to stymie the vast majority of attacks. When it comes to phishing, a mix of human and technological defenses can give your organization the protection it needs.

If you’re looking to protect your organization against spear phishing attacks, xorlab ActiveGuard can help. Get a look at how the solution can work for you with a free demo.

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