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10 Examples of Spear Phishing Attacks

This blog defines spear phishing, explains how it works, and provides 10 common examples of spear phishing attacks. It also compares individual and business spear phishing and shares 5 best practices to defend your organization against this cyber threat.

10 Examples of Spear Phishing Attacks

In 2024, spear phishing continues to be a major cybersecurity threat. This type of attack targets specific individuals within organizations using personalized emails to deceive them. These attacks often result in significant financial losses and data breaches.

For example, in 2024, German company Siemens lost €12 million to a spear phishing attack. The attackers posed as a trusted supplier and sent a fake invoice to the finance department. The email included personalized details, making it seem legitimate, leading to the fraudulent payment.

This blog post explores common spear phishing examples, explains how these attacks work, and provides best practices to protect your organization.

How Does Spear Phishing Work?

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Picture 1: How Spear Phishing Works: From Personalized Emails to Data Theft

Spear phishing is a targeted phishing attack that tricks the victim by pretending to be a trusted source.

Attackers gather personal and professional information about their target from social media and company websites. Using this information, they craft a fake email that appears to come from a trusted source, such as a colleague or business partner, and include personalized details to enhance its credibility.

The email contains a malicious attachment or a link to a fake website. When the target opens the attachment or clicks the link, malware is installed, or the target is asked to enter sensitive information. The malware then steals sensitive information like login credentials and financial data, or the stolen information is used to access secure systems and networks.

With the stolen credentials or access, the attacker performs malicious activities such as transferring funds, stealing data, or launching further attacks within the organization. They may also send more phishing emails from the compromised account. Finally, the attacker covers their tracks by deleting sent emails and using tools to hide their identity and location.

Understanding this process helps develop effective defense measures against spear phishing in cybersecurity.

10 Examples of Spear Phishing

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Picture 2: 10 Key Examples of Spear Phishing

There are various spear phishing attacks, each using different vulnerabilities to trick targets. Here we list 10 widespread spear phishing examples:

1. Business Email Compromise (BEC)

  • Scenario: An attacker impersonates a company executive and emails to the finance department requesting a wire transfer.
  • Real Case: In 2016, Ubiquiti Networks lost $46.7 million in a BEC attack where attackers spoofed the CEO’s email address, convincing the finance team to transfer funds to a fraudulent account.

2. Whaling

  • Scenario: A spear phishing attack targeting high-profile individuals like CEOs or CFOs.
  • Real Case: Snapchat's payroll department fell victim to a whaling attack in 2016 when an attacker impersonated the CEO and requested employee payroll data, leading to the exposure of employee personal information.

3. Fake Invoices

  • Scenario: An attacker sends a fake invoice to the accounting department, appearing to come from a legitimate vendor.
  • Real Case: In 2017, Turner Construction was targeted with a fake invoice spear phishing attack, where attackers sent invoices that appeared to be from a trusted supplier, resulting in the fraudulent transfer of funds.

4. Stealing Login Credentials

  • Scenario: An attacker sends an email with a link to a fake login page to steal credentials.
  • Real Case: The 2016 Democratic National Committee (DNC) hack involved spear phishing emails that led to a fake Google login page, allowing attackers to steal credentials and access sensitive emails.

5. Spear Phishing for Malware Delivery

  • Scenario: An email with a malicious attachment that installs malware when opened.
  • Real Case: In 2017, hackers used spear phishing emails with malicious attachments to distribute the NotPetya ransomware. The ransomware spread globally, causing significant financial and operational damage to multiple organizations, including Maersk and Merck.

6. Impersonation of Trusted Contacts

  • Scenario: An attacker hacks into a trusted contact’s email account and sends spear phishing emails to their contacts.
  • Real Case: In 2018, the City of Atlanta was hit by a ransomware attack initiated through spear phishing emails sent from compromised accounts of trusted contacts, leading to the encryption of city data and systems.

7. Fake Job Offers

  • Scenario: An attacker sends a fake job offer email to gather personal information or install malware.
  • Real Case: In 2019, North Korean hackers used fake job offer spear phishing emails to target security researchers, convincing them to download malware presented as job-related documents, resulting in compromised systems and data.

8. Tax-Themed Phishing

  • Scenario: An attacker sends an email posing as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or a tax service provider during tax season.
  • Real Case: In 2016, Seagate Technology was targeted with a spear phishing email that appeared to be from the IRS requesting employee W-2 forms. The attack led to the theft of sensitive employee information, including Social Security numbers.

9. Targeted Attacks on Suppliers

  • Scenario: An attacker sends spear phishing emails to a company's suppliers to gain access to the company’s network.
  • Real Case: In 2018, hackers used spear phishing to attack Target's HVAC vendors. The attackers gained access to Target’s network through the compromised vendor, leading to a breach of 40 million credit card numbers and personal information of 70 million customers.

10. Spear Phishing for Trade Secrets

  • Scenario: An attacker targets company employees to steal sensitive information or trade secrets.
  • Real Case: The 2011 RSA Security breach involved spear phishing emails with Excel attachments containing a zero-day exploit. The malware compromised RSA’s internal network, leading to data theft related to their SecureID authentication tokens, which were later used in attacks against RSA customers.

Being familiar with these different spear phishing examples is important for enhancing defenses against spear phishing in cybersecurity. By recognizing the specific methods used, organizations can better protect themselves and reduce the risk of falling victim to spear phishing scams.

Comparing Examples of Spear Phishing: Individual vs Business Spear Phishing

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Picture 3: Individual vs. Business Spear Phishing: Key Differences

Spear phishing attacks can target individuals or businesses, each with unique characteristics and methods. Understanding the differences between these types helps develop effective defense strategies.

Individual spear phishing focuses on single individuals, exploiting personal information and relationships for financial gain, identity fraud, or personal data theft. Attackers use personalized emails, emotional manipulation by impersonating friends or family, and fake login pages to steal credentials.

Business spear phishing targets employees within an organization, especially those with financial authority or access to sensitive information. The motivation is to achieve larger financial rewards, steal corporate secrets, or disrupt business operations. Common tactics include business email compromise (BEC), where high-ranking executives are impersonated to request wire transfers, and whaling, which targets senior executives with highly personalized emails. Supply chain attacks involve sending spear phishing emails to a company's suppliers or partners to gain network access.

The impact of individual spear phishing is usually limited to financial loss, identity theft, or personal data breaches. In contrast, business spear phishing can affect the entire organization, leading to significant financial losses, data breaches, operational disruptions, and reputational damage.

Watch the video below to see common examples of spear phishing and learn how to protect your organization.

Importance of Incorporating Spear Phishing Simulations into Awareness Training

Incorporating spear phishing simulations into awareness training is significant for several reasons:

  1. Realistic Practice: Phishing simulations provide a safe environment for employees to experience spear phishing email attempts, helping them recognize and respond to real threats more effectively.
  2. Increased Awareness: Regular simulations keep employees aware of spear phishing risks, helping them stay alert and cautious.
  3. Identifying Weaknesses: Simulations help identify employees who may need additional training and highlight common vulnerabilities within the organization that need addressing.
  4. Improved Response: Practicing with spear phishing simulations enhances employees' ability to quickly and correctly identify and report spear phishing emails, reducing the likelihood of successful attacks.
  5. Metrics and Improvement: Tracking the results of simulations provides valuable metrics on employee performance and the effectiveness of training programs, allowing for continuous improvement.

How to Prevent Spear Phishing?

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Picture 4: 5 Key Measures to Prevent Spear Phishing

Preventing spear phishing requires a multi-layered approach, combining user education, technical defenses, and continuous monitoring. Here are 5 best practices to prevent spear phishing in organizations:

  1. Regular Employee Training: Educate employees on spear phishing tactics and how to recognize suspicious emails through ongoing training and simulations.
  2. Implement Advanced Email Security Measures: Use email filtering solutions with machine learning and AI to detect and block threats and automatically scan email attachments and links.
  3. Enforce Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Require MFA for email accounts and critical systems to prevent unauthorized access, even if login credentials are compromised.
  4. Adopt Email Authentication Protocols: Use SPF, DKIM, and DMARC to verify the authenticity of incoming emails and protect against email spoofing.
  5. Establish Clear Reporting and Response Procedures: Provide a straightforward way for employees to report suspicious emails and ensure the security team responds promptly.

These practices will significantly enhance an organization's defense against spear phishing attacks.

Enhance Your Defenses with Keepnet’s Spear Phishing Awareness Training

Strengthen your defenses against spear phishing with the Keepnet Security Awareness Training platform.

Applying Security Awareness Training is important for companies to protect their organization against spear phishing attacks. Employees can easily fall victim to sophisticated phishing schemes without such training, leading to significant data breaches, financial losses, and reputational damage. Inadequate protection can result in costly regulatory fines and long-term disruption to business operations and customer trust.

Keepnet Security Awareness Training offers:

  • Extensive Training Options: Access to over 2000 training modules from 12+ content providers, ensuring up-to-date and effective training specifically designed to address spear phishing.
  • Behavior-Based Training: Innovative phishing simulators cover incorrect behaviors across multiple areas such as (Vishing, Smishing, Quishing, Callback phishing, and MFA) to prevent future spear phishing mistakes and potentially save up to $1 million annually.
  • User-Centric Experience: Trusted by over 2 million users, offering SCORM-compliant training packages that integrate with existing LMS for flexibility, focusing on spear phishing awareness.
  • Engaging Training Methods: Uses gamification, storytelling, leaderboards, and custom certificates to make spear phishing training interactive and memorable.
  • SMS Training Delivery: Ideal for employees with limited internet access, and provides detailed reporting to track progress and effectiveness in spear phishing prevention.
  • Specialized Training: Includes materials for regulatory compliance (HIPAA, GDPR, etc.) and tailored content for different roles within the organization, enhancing relevance to spear phishing threats.
  • Automated and Customizable Content: Automates training based on behavior and allows the creation of custom training materials specifically targeting spear phishing.
  • Interactive Learning Path: Keepnet enhances learning by incorporating simulations and gamified experiences into a structured learning path, engaging employees and improving their understanding and retention of cybersecurity concepts.

With Keepnet’s platform, organizations can build a strong security culture and effectively enhance their defenses against spear phishing and other cyber threats.

Watch the video below to learn how Keepnet Security Awareness Training can help protect your organization from phishing attacks, including spear phishing.



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tickElevate your cybersecurity with Keepnet's awareness training, increasing spear phishing report rates by up to 92%.
tickGet phishing risk scores, compare against industry standards, and share insights with executives for enhanced security.
tickAccess 2,000+ training courses in 36 languages for increased awareness and protection against spear phishing.
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