Wikipedia defines phishing as an attempt to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication.
Communications purporting to be from popular social web sites, auction sites, online payment processors or IT administrators are commonly used to lure the unsuspecting public.
Phishing is typically carried out by e-mail spoofing or instant messaging, and it often directs users to enter details at a fake website whose look and feel are almost identical to the legitimate one.
Phishing is an example of social engineering techniques used to deceive users, and exploits the poor usability of current web security technologies.
IDP recently carried out an authorized phishing attack for one of its customers and found that over 50% of the staff gave up their email passwords in an email that, if examined closely, was obviously bogus.
So what is spear phishing?
The difference between phishing and spear phishing is while the former floods thousands or even millions of inboxes, the latter targets a small group of previously-identified people, sometimes only a handful who work at the same company or in the same organization.With the increased popularity of social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), the bad guys are now able to select specific individuals (and businesses) and direct their malicious activity in a very granular fashion, just as you’d spear a fish.
"Today's spear phishing is not only more prevalent but also much more technically proficient," say Dave Jevans, chairman of the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), an industry association dedicated to fighting online identity theft.
"They're not going for a password, anymore, they're getting people to install crimeware on their computers," said Jevans.
Like the more common phishing, spear phishing attacks are launched as emails that try to con the recipient into clicking a link that leads to a malicious Web site. Those sites can take almost infinite forms, from fake account log-in screens to ones that tout a software upgrade to widely-used software, such as Adobe Flash.
Once the malicious link or email is clicked the attacker is able to install a program that infects the computer, giving criminals access to that machine -- and through it, others -- or to confidential information, like account passwords obtained by secretly monitoring the PC's keystrokes.
According to reports by the likes of Bloomberg, the recent IMF spear-phishing attack targeted one of its workers and planted malware on a machine, which was then presumably used to scout the network for data to steal.
But the IMF incident is only the most recent in a series of specialized attacks this year aimed at targets from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the French foreign ministry to Google's Gmail.
All have one thing in common: They relied on spear phishing to fool users into installing malware or revealing account information.
So what can individuals you do?
Well, very simply, maintain awareness, think before you click, keep your antivirus and antimalware software up to date and remember that anyone can be an unwitting target.
What about businesses?
Educating staff is first and foremost. Make sure there are polices, processes and procedures in place that everyone follows – but more importantly, that they understand.
From a technical perspective, ensure that your perimeter defenses (stateful firewalls, IDS / IPS, VPNs, blacklists, access control, etc.) are current, properly configured, monitored and regularly tested.
In summary, maintaining a defensive posture is not rocket science. Common sense, diligence and thoughtfulness is 90% of the game.