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Phishing vs. spear phishing

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

The two appear similar. They both refer to types electronic information stealing attacks. Both phishing and spear phishing aim to deceive users into clicking on malicious links, attachments or into accessing malicious websites. 

The difference between phishing and spear phishing primarily relates to the targets of the attacks. Phishers attempt to reach as many people as possible. Spear phishers want to reach the right few individuals. With the right knowledge, distinguishing phishing vs. spear phishing is easy. 

What is phishing?

Phishing emails are often sent to large numbers of people, mostly at ransom, with the expectation that only a small percentage will respond. For example, a phishing email that appears as though it’s from a well-known brand might arrive with information about an order cancelation. The phishing email might say, “Your order has been canceled and a refund will be processed. Please click this link in order to start a refund transaction.”

The enclosed link may contain malware, or it may direct an individual to a fake website, where the person is asked to enter a home address, social security number, or other personal information. In such cases, the information is typically used to commit fraud or it is later sold on the dark web, allowing others to use it for identity theft. 

What is spear phishing?

In contrast, spear phishing emails are not sent out en-masse. Emails are often sent to a single individual – but they’re very carefully crafted and intended to deceive. 

Cyber criminals who engage in spear phishing may select a target within a given organization, and may then use social media or other publicly available information in order to create a phony email tailored to this person’s interests or needs. 


A spear phishing email might say “We thank you for flying with us on [date of actual airline flight]. On your next Delta Airlines trip, receive a complementary seating upgrade and a partial voucher for a free subsequent flight. Click here for details”. 

Spear phishing emails can focus on any topic – from fast food, to flights, to new technologies or business practices. Spear phishers may impersonate someone high-up in an organization (a CEO) in order to more easily gain a foothold in someone’s inbox. 

Spotting spear phishing

Train employees to spot potential spear phishing emails. Early identification of spear phishing attacks can prevent an organization from experiencing operational, production, and financial difficulties as a result of these attacks. 

Instruct employees to remain cautious when it comes to clicking on links and attachments in emails. Employees need to know that if an email seems “off”, it may be best to contact the sender via a non-email channel in order to confirm their identity. Alternatively, depending on the nature of the threat, employees may wish to report findings to the IT department. 

When trained users fall for attacks

It’s now easier than ever for hackers to create convincing email copy, and even the most well-trained and observant employees can fall prey to phishing or spear phishing attempts.

Thus, in addition to employee education, organizations need to ensure that they implement technical solutions designed to prevent phishing and spear-phishing emails from ever hitting employee inboxes. 

Phishing solutions 

What’s the difference between phishing vs. spear phishing without adequate security? Not much, as both will result in a business breach.

When it comes to technical phishing solutions, select options that layer into your existing security platform. Go with technologies that are easy-to-use and easy-to-deploy, and that come with the most advanced anti-phishing capabilities. 

For more insights pertaining to phishing vs. spear phishing, click here and here. Lastly, discover anti-phishing resources among CyberTalk.org’s collection of business buyer’s guides, whitepapers and solutions briefs