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March 29, 2023 |

Spear phishing vs. phishing: What's the difference?

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From startups to enterprises, every business has a built-in vulnerability—its people. Dedicated scammers constantly seek new ways to target companies and separate them from their valuable customer data or money. Among the ever-increasing cyber crimes that threaten an organization’s people daily, spear phishing and phishing are among the most common.

There are some alarming statistics regarding phishing and spear phishing:

  • In 2020, phishing messages were the primary ways in which malware infiltrated a company's data management system.
  • As of October 2022, there are well over 6,000,000 phishing sites around the globe, with financial companies being the top target.
  • The FBI’s 2021 Internet Crime Report states that phishing and related types of cyberattacks increased by about 34% from 2020 to 2021.
  • The Swiss Cyber Institute estimates that cybercriminals create up to 1,500,000 new phishing websites monthly, and approximately 95% of attacks on corporations are caused by successful spear phishing campaigns.

Companies everywhere are coming to terms with the fact that it’s not “if” they will experience a cyberattack, but “when.” The good news is that there are several proactive steps you can take to prevent potential attacks before they start.

Understanding the difference between spear phishing versus phishing is a great place to begin. This blog explains these two types of cyberattacks, including the warning signs that one is imminent and how to prepare your team against them.

What is phishing?

Phishing is a type of cyberattack, usually delivered as an email, used to obtain sensitive information or data such as bank account numbers or passwords. Cybercriminals engineer these messages before broadly and randomly sending them out to trick recipients into performing an action that furthers the attack.

Scammers know that most recipients will ignore the phishing attempt, but they also know they’ll find success with those who don’t.

There are a variety of tactics cybercriminals use to engineer these messages. They may write the email to appear as official correspondence from a well-known, trustworthy company. They may try to create a sense of urgency by using strong language or threats, such as imminent account closure or legal terminology.

The desired action is often either to open a malicious attachment, sometimes disguised as a bill or invoice but is really malware, or to click a malicious link. Upon clicking the link, the recipient may be brought to a spoofed website where they're asked to provide sensitive information, such as their name, address, credit card number, and Social Security Number.

The term “phishing” generally refers to broad and random email cyberattacks. However, scammers conduct other methods of cyberattacks that fall under the phishing umbrella, including:

  • Smishing—performed via text or SMS messages to infect the user’s mobile device.
  • Vishing—using phone calls or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).
  • Fax phishing—involves a phishing email stating that the recipient has received a fax as an attachment to the email. The attachment usually leads users to a spoofed site and asks them to enter their login information.
  • Pop-up phishing—initiated when urgent messages appear on the user’s screen while accessing the Internet. These are often “warning” messages about their device’s security.

What is spear phishing?

Spear phishing is similar to standard phishing in its overall purpose. However, unlike the wide net cast by standard phishing, spear phishing is distinct because it targets specific groups or organizations.

The true target of a spear phishing attack is typically not the individual but the business. In short, cyber attackers are using the specific employee as a means to an end. The goal may be to get into a company's servers, not to just steal the individual's personal information.

When conducting a spear phishing attack, cybercriminals can use social engineering techniques to send spoofed emails to specific targets. Scammers glean highly personalized information from the individual’s social media profiles and other sources they can easily find online.

Such an email may allow the threat actor to impersonate a colleague, a supervisor, a family member, or a business associate of the targeted individual, making the email significantly more believable.

The idea behind this approach is that, by building trust with the recipient, the scammer may have a much higher chance of convincing the individual to perform the desired action.

Cybercriminals are willing to do intensive research into their targets because they know these attacks have a higher chance of a significant payoff. The ultimate purpose of spear phishing is to obtain sensitive customer data that criminals can sell for a hefty profit or the scammer’s direct monetary benefit.

Cybercriminals often carry out spear phishing attacks using either of these common methods:


Whaling targets a company’s senior executives, who likely have the authority to access confidential company information or initiate the transfer of funds.

These attacks are often attempts to steal sensitive information, such as business secrets, financial information, or employees’ personal information.

CEO fraud

CEO fraud targets lower-level employees by impersonating the CEO or another senior executive of the company. By pretending to be an authority figure, scammers may successfully pressure the recipient into performing the requested action.

This is also frequently referred to as “business email compromise.”

How are spear phishing and phishing different?

Phishing and spear phishing share many characteristics. However, their differences lie in their methodologies to put your company at risk.

The target

General phishing attacks usually cast a wide net. Phishing is a numbers game in which the scammer targets anyone who opens the email. While most recipients know better than to click a link or open an attachment in such an email, there are bound to be some who do not.

Spear phishing, on the other hand, is specifically targeted toward an individual or a group to fool the target(s) into clicking a link or opening an attachment.

In many spear phishing attempts, the target is merely a pawn in the scammer’s game, as the real target is the organization itself.

Level of personalization

Scammers write standard phishing emails to be more general and use impersonal language. Phishing emails generally don’t require significant research on the scammer’s part.

Spear phishing often involves the cyber criminal putting in much more effort to personalize the message because of the possibility of a larger payoff.

Level of urgency

Phishing emails often employ urgent language to convince the recipients to take immediate action without thinking about it first. The goal of spear phishing, however, is often to gain the recipient’s trust before enticing them to perform the requested action.

Warning signs of phishing and spear phishing

When you understand the differences between spear phishing and phishing, you’ll have a better chance of catching these cyberattacks before they do harm.

Be on the lookout for some of these red flags that indicate an email is not as innocent as it seems.

  • Urgent or threatening language
    • Pressure to respond immediately
    • Threats to close an account or take legal action
    • Attempts to panic the recipient
  • Requests for private or sensitive information
    • Direct links to login pages or data-collection forms
    • Requests to update an account or other financial information
    • Requests for an unusual funds transfer, especially if urgent
  • Peculiar emails
    • Receipts for purchases the recipient did not make
    • Delivery updates for items the recipient did not order
    • Unexpected prizes or winning announcements
    • Inheritances from distant relatives
    • Prizes that require payment to receive
  • Suspicious attachments
    • Unusual file names or types
    • Attachments the recipient did not request or expect
  • Incorrect information
    • Links that don’t lead to official websites or match the domain
    • Spelling or grammar errors
    • Incorrect sender email addresses
  • Unprofessional layout, design, or greeting
    • Blurry or fraudulent logos
    • Image-only emails
    • Poor formatting
    • Unusual tone or inappropriate greetings from colleagues or a relatives

Protect your business from phishing and spear phishing

Phishing, spear phishing, and other forms of cyberattacks are harsh realities in today’s digital world. Cybercriminals are not just going after large corporations. Small and mid-sized businesses are also at risk. However, with the right education and vigilance, your business can avoid falling victim to these online scams.

Field Effect’s phishing simulation services can help your company raise awareness about phishing and spear phishing by educating your team members about the different types of attacks and their warning signs.

Our services use customizable phishing campaigns to help train you and your staff to successfully detect modern phishing attacks. You can safely test your company’s resilience to targeted attacks and use the resulting insights to fortify your cybersecurity strategy.

Every second counts. Book a demo about Field Effect’s phishing simulations today.