Phishing vs. spear phishing: what’s the difference?

by | Oct 14, 2021

Young man checks his email at his work computer.
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Cybercriminals, hackers, and scammers always look for new and inventive ways to steal your private data and personal identity. A common tactic involves reeling in unsuspecting victims through email or text messaging. The ruse may involve a large group of people or target specific individuals. These attacks are known as phishing and spear phishing.

Let’s explore phishing and spear phishing schemes and how to recognize and protect yourself from these scams.

What is phishing?

Phishing is a common tactic used by cybercriminals to steal your personal information through email or text messaging (fraudulent texts are also known as smishing). The communication is designed to look like it’s coming from a legitimate source and typically gets sent to an extensive, random list of recipients. The goal is to entice you to click on a link. You may then be asked to supply personal information, including your social security number and credit card details. Some hackers attach malware to the link that infects your computer.

These are examples of what a phishing email may look like:

  • Dear Valued Amazon Customer, redeem your special savings coupon now.
  • Your Facebook account has been compromised. Click here to resolve the issue.

Note that these examples use generic salutations or ignore them altogether. If an organization you bank or shop with requires specific information or detects an account issue, they typically address you by name or call you directly.

A company owner leads a cybersecurity training focused on spear phishing attacks.

What is spear phishing?

Spear phishing takes phishing to a more sophisticated, personal level. Rather than sending blanket emails to the masses, the scammer zeroes in on a specific person. Targeted attacks like spear phishing are created to make you believe you’re being contacted by a colleague or organization you trust. Examples of spear phishing include:

  • Hi Jane. Can you please log into your work account and review the following proposal?
  • Attention John: There’s been unauthorized activity on your Wells Fargo bank account. Click here to log in and fix the problem.

A person reads a spear phishing email on their laptop.

How do spear phishing attacks differ from standard phishing attacks?

Unlike phishers, who target random groups, spear phishers extensively research you before reaching out. They often know your name and where you live, bank, and work. They dig deep to find your critical login credentials, financial account numbers, email passwords, and any other data they can get their hands on to steal your money, personal information, and identity.

These cybercriminals craft their emails carefully to gain your trust by tricking you into thinking someone you know or an organization you do business with needs information from you. If you take the bait, the scammer can access sensitive personal data and infect your devices with malware, spyware, or  .

If one of your devices becomes infected, make sure you know how to remove malware.

Phishing attacks can target anyone

Scammers devise all types of spear phishing attacks, including unsolicited surveys, bank alerts, and urgent IRS notifications. Nobody is immune to these attacks. Politicians, athletes, celebrities, and large corporations have all been targets of spear phishing scams.

Big business is another popular target for spear phishers. In 2019, a Toyota parts supplier lost $37 million after being tricked into moving money into a phony bank account. More recently, Elara Caring, a U.S. healthcare provider, was hit with an unauthorized computer intrusion that targeted two employees. The spear phisher was able to gain access to names, birthdates, social security numbers, insurance information, and financial information from over 100,000 elderly patients.

How to protect yourself from phishing and spear phishing scams

Anyone is fair game for a phishing scam. So, how can you protect yourself from falling victim to a scam? There are steps you can follow to safeguard yourself from cyberattacks.

Know the signs

Being diligent is your best defense to help protect you from spear phishing. Before clicking on an email link, check for signs that the sender is who they claim to be.

  • Is the name of the person or business spelled correctly?
  • Carefully study the sender’s email address. Scammers often use a phony address close to the real one (e.g., or
  • Does the greeting strike you as odd? Being addressed as “Customer” or “Sir” could indicate something’s not right.
  • Closely check the email’s tone and spelling. Are there typos? Are they overtly trying to get you to take actions you typically wouldn’t? These are signs of a scam.

Contact the sender

Suppose you receive an urgent email from a person or institution you think you know—like your boss, bank, or the IRS. The email asks you to download personal data, reset a password, or log in to check a financial account. Before taking action, reach out to the person to ensure they’re the legitimate sender. Verifying a suspicious request can mean the difference between avoiding an attack and having your information stolen.

Protect your personal information

It isn’t easy to completely safeguard your personal details from cybercriminals. Data such as job titles and profiles on a company website are easily accessible to hackers. However, there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of having your private information compromised.

  • Set all social media accounts to private settings. Be selective about what you share on your public timelines.
  • Enable two-factor authentication on your email and other financial accounts. Doing this involves an extra step in the login process, but it can prevent hackers from getting the information they need to access your data if you accidentally provide credentials in a spear phishing attack.
  • Update your software frequently. If your software provider notifies you that a new update is available, do it immediately. Most software systems include security software updates to help protect against cyberattacks.

The first line of defense from a cyberattack is you

Hackers, scammers, and cybercriminals will always be out there, casting their nets in hopes of making a catch. Don’t take the bait.

As email security becomes more sophisticated, phishing and spear phishing tactics will become easier to flag. Be vigilant and watch for signs of a scam. Remember, if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. With the right preventive tools and a watchful eye, you’ll be ready when a spear phisher tries to reel you in.

Quantum Fiber with 360 WiFi includes built-in security and safety features to keep you and your personal information protected.



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