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In Security Last updated: September 11, 2023
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Phishing is one of the most popular and common forms of social engineering attacks. 

Being a cyberattack that targets and exploits human intelligence, phishing has successfully targeted several small and big companies in the past. According to a survey, over 80% of organizations experienced at least one successful phishing attack attempt in 2020. 

Moreover, a Phishing Activity Trends Report suggests that phishing attacks have significantly grown by 150% between 2019 and 2022, recording a record-shattering number of 4.7 million attacks in 2022. 

While phishing is a broad category of cyberattack, under the umbrella of which fall, other types of phishing attacks include vishing, email phishing, spear phishing, clone phishing, and more. 

Of these, spear phishing is one of the most prevalent and sophisticated cyberattacks, forming a beginning or starting point for over 91% of cyberattacks.  

But how do phishing and spear phishing differ from one another? What key elements distinguish these two cyberattacks, and how can you prevent your organization from them?

In this article, we dive deep into phishing vs. spear phishing and look at the top features that differentiate these phishing attacks from one another. 

Let’s go! 

What Is Phishing?


A phishing attack is a type of cyberattack that spreads scams via emails targeting random individuals through different channels and mediums, like text messages (smishing), emails (email phishing), or phone calls (vishing). 

Attackers send phishing emails in bulk and large volumes to obtain sensitive user information and business details, hoping that out of thousands of phishing attempts, at least one or a few will succeed. 

Modern phishing attackers engineer these emails and messages broadly and smartly, making them look legitimate from an authoritative source like a business or a bank. Hackers send these emails randomly to users, tricking and manipulating them into clicking on the malicious links or documents within the email or performing specific action that triggers further attacks. 

In a phishing attack, attackers mostly use an urgent tone of voice, inducing a sense of fear among the recipients and manipulating them into downloading infected documents or clicking on malicious links—compromising their personal information like bank details or login credentials. 

Thus, as the name suggests, phishing refers to random and broad email cyberattacks, which exploit innocent users or email recipients to compromise confidential data and information. 

However, different cyberattacks fall under the umbrella of phishing, depending on the medium or tactic. The different phishing attack mechanisms include:

  • Smishing: Also known as SMS phishing, smishing is an attack performed via SMS or text messages to infect the user’s phone or mobile device with malware. 
  • Vishing: Vishing is a phishing cyberattack performed via phone calls or downloaded internet protocols, like VoIP or Voice Over Internet Protocol. 
  • Pop-up phishing: This attack is performed by initiating an urgent pop-up or messages on the user’s screen in the form of pop-ups about their device security. 
  • Fax phishing: This phishing attack involves the attacker sending a phishing email to the user stating that they have received a fax in the email attachment, typically leading users to fake or spoofed websites, asking them to enter their login credentials. 
  • Wire transfer phishing: This attack includes bank transfers to conduct fraudulent activities. 

So, if these are the different types of phishing attacks, let’s also understand what spear phishing is and how it differs from the ones mentioned above. 

What Is Spear Phishing?

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Spear phishing is a more advanced and sophisticated form of phishing attack that targets specific or targeted individuals, organizations, or victims as opposed to phishing attacks that target a wide mass of individuals. 

Typically, instead of targetting a group of individuals, spear phishing attacks primarily target a specific business or organization using social engineering tactics, like spoofed emails. 

In spear phishing, attackers often impersonate an organization’s employees, colleagues, or business acquaintances to compromise the organization’s confidential information. Here, the goal might not just be to steal an individual’s personal information but to hack and get into a company server to perform a targeted malicious activity. 

Cybercriminals often use social engineering techniques, like spoofed emails, by sending highly personalized emails to the victims by gathering personal details, like their name and company, through their social media profiles—making the spoofed emails look more genuine, legitimate, and believable. 

This helps cybercriminals build trust within the victims, increasing the chances of email recipients performing the desired action. Besides email spoofing, attackers might employ dynamic URLs and drive-by-downloads to compromise a company’s security measures and carry out the spear phishing attack. 

Cybercriminals often employ two types of attacks when conducting spear phishing: 

  • Whaling: This spear phishing attack mainly targets senior executives with the power or authority to access a company’s confidential information. Targeting such individuals enable attackers to access sensitive data, initiate fund transfer, or conduct a data breach. 
  • CEO fraud: While whaling attacks target senior employees, CEO fraud phishing attacks mainly target lower-level or junior employees by impersonating higher-level or senior executives, like a company’s CEO, by pretending to be such a high-level authority; attackers can easily convince or pressure junior employees into taking unauthorized actions. This attack is also referred to as Business Email Compromise (BEC) attack. 

Now that we understand the basic definition and idea behind phishing and spear phishing let’s get into more detail to understand how these two attacks differ through their key differentiating factors. 

Phishing vs. Spear Phishing: Quick Glance

FactorsPhishingSpear Phishing
Attack styleAttacks at scale, targeting a wider and random group of individuals.Attacks a specific organization or individual via social engineering tactics.
Level of personalizationOccurs frequently and is less time-consuming. Highly personalized, as the attacker conducts deep research of their target victim—including name, organization, job profile, etc.
Level of urgencyEmploys convincing and urgent language to make victims take immediate action without second thoughts.Comprises a minimal to no urgency element, as it focuses on gaining the victim’s trust first before making them perform the desired action. 
Primary goalTo compromise and access the victim’s sensitive data like login credentials.While spear phishing may also try to access data like credit card details or login credentials, the end goal could be much higher, like extracting the company’s trade secrets, etc. 
Frequency Banks send generic emails requesting for password updates.Occurs less frequently, as it requires a lot of time, effort, and research to execute. 
Level of effortLow, as the messages are quite generic and templated.High, as the messages are drafted carefully with enhanced personalization.
Tonality of the message contentGeneric and formal (sometimes unfamiliar to the victim). Familiar and personalized, often included with the victim’s name in the greetings.
Examples Banks send generic emails requesting password updates.A high or senior authority employee requesting for wire money transfer for a project. 
Preventative measuresEmail filtering and basic cybersecurity training and awareness. Advanced firewalls, email filtering, and consistent cybersecurity awareness with phishing simulations. 

Phishing vs. Spear Phishing: Features Explained

While phishing and spear phishing might share similar characteristics, they differ from one another in terms of their primary target, attack tactics or methodologies, the security measures taken to defend them, and other factors. 

Let’s take a look at each one of those one by one.

#1. Attack Vectors

Attack Vectors

Standard phishing attacks cast a wider net through social engineering attacks, like mass emails, malicious websites, or SMS messaging. Thus, they often try to target a wide group of individuals through multiple attack vectors or tactics, attempting to reach a large number of potential victims. 

On the other hand, spear phishing attacks are much more targeted, specific, and personalized, targeting a specific organization or group of individuals. While spear phishing often uses spoofed emails as its attack vector, it might also employ social media, phone calls, or in-person interactions to target specific individuals.

#2. Deceptive Tactics

Phishing attacks use and send generic and poorly-written emails or messages in bulk, impersonating legitimate organizations or services. They employ scare tactics or create a sense of urgency within the messages, tricking victims into giving up their sensitive data like login credentials or bank account details. 

Thus, attackers often use generic email templates to deceive users and use the fear tactic, relying on malicious links, fake websites, and malware-inducing attachments, making the victims perform the desired action to ensure device or account security. 

While phishing relies on generic deceiving tactics, spear phishing employs convincing and highly personalized tactics by conducting thorough research regarding their target victims to draft personalized and believable messages. 

They include specific details about the victim, like their name, company, job title, etc., mimicking a legitimate business email’s style and tone of voice, making them look more legitimate and distinguishing them from generic phishing emails.

#3. Targeting

Attackers target multiple individuals at once in phishing attacks using generic emails, thus having a broad and wider opportunistic focus. Thus, phishing attacks send emails in bulk instead of targeting specific people or organizations, hoping at least a few percent of the victims will fall for their deceptive tactics. 

On the contrary, spear phishing leverages targeted social engineering, not just mere luck. Attackers are very clear, focused, and precise about their target victims and send personalized emails to selected individuals with a bird’s eye view. 

They choose or focus on high-value executives or senior employees to compromise to gain access to an organization’s sensitive business data. The higher the level of executive they target, the greater the potential impact of compromising them. 

Thus, in a spear phishing attack, the target victim can be considered as a means to an end, which is compromising the target organization itself.

#4. Objectives

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The primary aim of phishing attacks is to collect a large volume of confidential and sensitive information by targeting a wider net of individuals. This information may include credit card numbers, login credentials, bank account passwords, or other personal data from as many target people as possible. 

On the other hand, the objective of spear phishing attacks is more focused and may vary widely, depending on the attacker’s end goal of how they wish to compromise a specific business or organization. 

Spear phishing objectives may include accessing specific business accounts, exfiltrating confidential information, stealing proprietary assets or data, launching insider cyberattacks within an organization, or conducting targeted corporate espionage.

#5. Detection Challenges

fraud alert

Organizations can detect phishing attacks through domain blacklisting, email filtering and firewalls, and antivirus software. 

However, detecting a few phishing emails can get challenging with the evolving sophisticated social engineering attacks that manipulate human intelligence and tactics, such as impersonating authoritative individuals, using HTTPS in fake websites, URL obfuscation, pharming, and more. 

At the same time, compared to phishing attacks, detecting spear phishing attacks can get even more challenging as they are engineered in a more customized way. Hence, traditional security measures like firewalls often fail to detect them. 

Thus, detecting spear phishing relies heavily on user education, awareness, and a keen eye or ability to spot subtle, deceptive signs within emails.

#6. Prevention Measures

Employees and organizations can prevent phishing attacks by employing firewalls, antivirus software, email, and web filtering, regularly updating passwords, installing security patches, etc. 

It’s also crucial to spread cybersecurity awareness and conduct employee training to promote vigilance amongst employees about easily recognizing phishing attempts. 

Spear phishing prevention involves a multi-layered approach and requires a combination of robust email security solutions and user education. These can include employing strict access controls, Two-Factor authentication (2FA), employee training and awareness, robust email security solutions that identify suspicious email patterns, and threat intelligence.

#7. Real-life Examples

Fake and malicious emails impersonating reputed organizations and banks like PayPal or social media profiles are common examples of how phishing attacks are conducted. 

  • Spectrum Health System, a health organization, reported a vishing attack in September 2020, where the patients and organization members received phone calls from people masquerading as employees to extract their personal data, including member ID and other details related to their accounts. Attackers used threats and flattery to pressure victims into handing over the desired data, access to personal devices, or money. 
  • Another real-life example of a phishing attack is when Tripwire reported a smishing attack in September 2020. The attacker sent SMS messages to victims disguised as the United States Post Office (USPS). The message asked the victims to click a link to view critical details about their upcoming USPS delivery, which directed them to fake websites to steal their Google account credentials. 

Similarly, here are two real-life examples of spear phishing campaigns. 

  • One of the most famous real-life incidents of a spear phishing attack is when Google and Facebook were tricked into paying $122 million between 2013 and 2015 due to an extended BEC spear phishing attack campaign. The attacker impersonated Quanta, a common vendor for both companies and sent emails with fake invoices, which Google and Facebook paid. However, the companies could later recover $49.7 million from the stolen amount. 
  • Another spear phishing attack example is when Pathe, France’s leading cinema group, lost €19.2 million due to CEO fraud, when the attacker sent several emails impersonating the CEO Marc Lacan, requesting the Dutch office to transfer the amount in four ranches to Towering Stars General Trading LLC in Dubai.

#8. Success Rate

While the phishing attack success rate varies greatly, it’s comparatively lower than spear phishing attacks because of being generic and less targeted. 

Moreover, the success rate of a phishing attack primarily depends on the quality and deceptive tactics used within the messages, the victim’s cybersecurity awareness, and the ability to detect a spoofed message. 

On the other hand, spear phishing attacks have a higher success rate because of their convincing and personalized nature. The email recipients are more likely to trust the spoofed emails and fall for spear phishing attempts, as they appear more credible and contain relevant and specific information. 

Ways To Protect Yourself From Phishing and Spear Phishing 


The dangers and potential impact of phishing and spear phishing attacks are greater, real, and highly complex, costing organizations millions of dollars. 

Thus, taking critical preventative measures to stop or at least limit the risks of these phishing attacks is essential. Here are a few ways you can protect yourself and your organization from falling victim to sophisticated phishing and spear phishing attacks. 

  • Encrypt the confidential data and information on your computer and mobile devices through data encryption, ensuring attackers won’t be able to access this data without the right password. 
  • Fake phishing emails are the primary means for attackers to steal login credentials. Hence, authenticate your email address through methods such as configuring SPF, DMARC, and DKIM. 
  • Use Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) to protect your confidential business account access, even if your login credentials or passwords get compromised. MFA makes it even more challenging for the attackers to hack into your accounts. 
  • Keep all your internal software, applications, operating systems, and networking tools updated and secure by installing the latest security patches, malware protection, and antivirus and antispam software. 
  • Educate your employees and spread cybersecurity awareness about the negative impact and repercussions of phishing attacks, detection mechanisms, and how to prevent them, and promote following the best practices to limit their risks. 
  • Conduct regular cybersecurity training programs and phishing simulations to keep employees aware of the latest cybersecurity trends and threats and test their ability to identify and report fraudulent and malicious emails. 

Thus, creating a cybersecurity-centric organization culture and incorporating the best procedures and practices can significantly help reduce the potential impact of phishing and spear phishing attacks. 

Final Words 

Both phishing and spear phishing attack campaigns are inevitable and hard realities of today’s digital world. Cybercriminals today employ sophisticated tactics to compromise individuals and organizations, leading to massive financial and reputational damages. 

While both attacks can damage an organization’s credibility, they can be prevented by staying on top of the latest cybersecurity trends and incorporating the best security practices—and it starts with understanding and studying the attacks themselves. 

This article helps you understand the difference between phishing and spear phishing and how they differ in terms of their primary objective, target, impact, success rate, tactics, attack vectors, and prevention methods. 

So, follow the best security practices mentioned above to prevent yourself and your company from falling prey to malicious phishing and spear phishing campaigns.

Next, check out email security solutions to protect you from spam, spoofing, and phishing attacks.

  • Tejal Sushir
    Tejal is an experienced B2B SaaS content writer for eCommerce and marketing, specializing in web hosting, AI & ML, cloud and cybersecurity, SEO, and digital marketing. She holds a B.E degree in Electronics & Telecommunications… read more
  • Rashmi Sharma

    Rashmi has over 7 years of expertise in content management, SEO, and data research, making her a highly experienced professional. She has a solid academic background and has done her bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer applications…. read more

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