Don’t let your business get caught on a spear phisher’s hook.

Like regular phishing, spear phishing involves sending legitimate-looking but fraudulent emails asking users to provide sensitive information and/or initiate wire transfers. However, while regular phishing emails are sent out en masse to the general public, spear phishing emails are highly targeted and sent to specific, predetermined victims, usually a small group of people working at a specific company.

In a press release released in 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned of a dramatic rise in a type of spear phishing known as a “CEO email scam” or a “business email compromise scam.” According to the FBI, from October 2013 to February 2016, law enforcement identified 17,642 victims, totaling $2.3 billion in losses. Since January 2015, reports of spear phishing have increased by 270%.

Main Line Health Attack Proves that Employee Data Is at Risk

In February 2016, while everyone’s attention was focused on the Hollywood Presbyterian ransomware attack, Main Line Health, which operates four hospitals near Philadelphia, was hit by a spear phishing scheme. Emails were sent to employees, purportedly from the organization’s CEO and CFO, requesting employee payroll and W2 information. While some employees immediately realized the emails were fraudulent and reported them to management, at least one employee was tricked into sending the requested information to the hacker. As a result, Main Line Health had to notify its employees that their personal information may have been compromised and offer them free credit counseling and monitoring services.

When healthcare organizations think about cyber security, they usually focus on patient data protection. However, the hackers who compromised Main Line Health were not seeking to infiltrate patient data, but employee data, and the attack may have been connected to a very large spear phishing scheme targeting HR and payroll professionals in various industries nationwide. It is suspected that the hackers running the scheme intended to use the stolen data to file fraudulent tax returns.

How to Protect Against Spear Phishing

Email spam filters can be adjusted to recognize emails from suspicious sources and block them before they reach employees’ inboxes. However, some phishing emails will undoubtedly still get through. The best way to protect against spear phishing is to teach employees how to recognize the telltale signs of a spear phishing email, such as:

The salutation and/or the closing seem odd. For example, management normally refers to you as “William” or “Mr. Doe,” but the email is addressed to “Bill.” In the case of Main Line Health, the closing is what alerted one employee to the fraud; the email message, which purported to be from the CEO, was signed “John Lynch,” but the employee knew that the company’s CEO goes by “Jack.”
The request is unusual and/or does not follow normal company protocol. For example, the email is asking for employee W2 information, but requests like this are not normally handled through email or by the employee who received the request, or the person who allegedly sent the email has never requested similar information before, or it’s unusual for the person who allegedly sent the email to directly contact that particular employee.
The wording and tone of the email are stilted. Many spear phishing attacks are launched by foreign hackers who are not fluent in English; the email may be riddled with punctuation, spelling, or grammar errors, be worded oddly, or use British spelling. The wording may also be overly formal – or overly casual.
The domain the email was sent from is incorrect. Instead of “,” the email may have been sent from “” or some other derivative.

Employees should be taught that if something seems “off” about an email, they should consult a supervisor or IT security personnel before responding to it. Additionally, as part of your organization’s overall cyber security plan, a firm protocol should be established regarding requests for sensitive employee and patient data, and employees should be trained not to release sensitive data unless the protocol is followed.

Author's Bio: 

Michael Peters is the CEO of Lazarus Alliance, Inc., the Proactive Cyber Security™ firm, and Continuum GRC. He has served as an independent information security consultant, executive, researcher, and author. He is an internationally recognized and awarded security expert with years of IT and business leadership experience and many previous executive leadership positions.

He has contributed significantly to curriculum development for graduate degree programs in information security, advanced technology, cyberspace law, and privacy, and to industry standard professional certifications. He has been featured in many publications and broadcast media outlets as the “Go-to Guy” for executive leadership, information security, cyberspace law, and governance.