Spear Phishing Vs Phishing Attacks (How Do They Differ)

It wasn’t all that long ago that when we heard the term "phishing," an image of grabbing a pole and bait and heading out to the nearest body of water came to mind.

This is the 21st century, though, and phishing now can have an entirely different meaning – instead, referring to an email attack with the intention of the victim clicking on a malicious link or attachment.  

Spear phishing is an even more personalized form of phishing, and both pose a significant threat to internet users.

If you're curious about the differences between spear phishing vs phishing, stay tuned because we're about to fill you in and help keep you protected from these attacks! 

hacker in black hoodie using a computer

Phishing is a kind of fraudulent practice of using fake emails, websites, links, or texts in order for you to share sensitive data with the cybercriminals behind them.

Of course, these links, sites, and messages are designed to look genuine, so victims are tricked into doing what the hackers want. The most common attacks involve obtaining user login information, credit card information, Social Security numbers, and more.  

If you work at a very large corporation, you could receive an email, for example, that claims that your password is about to expire for your company email account. It will give you "instructions" to update your password with a fraudulent link.  

Nowadays, you could even receive "messages" from friends on social media who've clicked a phishing link. The link could contain a tempting message such as "Is this you in this video?" with a link that looks like it's to an actual video. There are so many different methods phishers use, and they're always updating them to remain relevant and easy to fall for.  

So, where did phishing even come from? How did it begin?  

Let's go back to the '90s, where dial-up first appeared, and many people were still a bit wary of paying for internet access (oh, how times have changed!). Instead of subscriptions, you could opt for a 30-day free trial with an AOL floppy disk.

Some people figured out how to change their screen names to make it look like they were AOL admins. They would use this discovery to “phish” for others’ login information to continue receiving free internet access.  

As the internet exploded in popularity, phishing tactics only advanced. There was a very well-known attack from “The Love Bug” on May 4th, 2000. Rooted in the Philippines, many people received an email that was titled, "ILOVEYOU." When the recipient opened the message, the body said, "Kindly check the attached LOVELETTER coming from me."  

As it was quite a compelling message for many, countless people clicked on the link with hopes of finding out who their secret admirer was, only to cause a virus to be released, which damaged the computer. It overwrote image files and copied and sent the info to all the user's Outlook address book contacts.  

Today, tactics are somewhat similar in practice though scammers are looking for much more now than just free internet access. These scams have the potential to completely destroy the world economy, as essentially everything is now performed online.  

Most Common Types Of Phishing Attacks

Let's look at the types of phishing one is most likely to encounter and who the types of phishing tend to target most.  

  • Email Phishing 
    These make up the bulk of phishing attacks. All the scammer has to do is register a fake domain that looks close enough to a legitimate organization and send out tons of generic requests. For example, they could create an email like [email protected], and "PayPal" will very likely appear as the sender of the email. A solid way to evade these scams is to copy and paste the email address in question into Google and see if any results come up about it being a scam. 
  • Whaling 
    These are targeted attacks, usually at senior executives and using a more subtle approach. These could involve bogus tax returns as they contain a lot of very useful information such as Social Security numbers, addresses, full names, and even bank account numbers. 
  • Smishing And Vishing 
    Both involve using phones instead of emails. The scammers will send text messages similar to what phishing emails look like and will try to create a conversation with you.   One of the most common types is the phisher pretending to be a fraud investigator from a credit card company or bank and letting the potential victim "know" that their "account has been hacked/breached." They'll then try to solicit card details to verify the identity of the victim or transfer money into the criminal's account.  
  • Angler Phishing 
    These are more modern methods of phishing, using social media. They can create fake URLs, cloned websites, posts, tweets, messages, and more. One of the most common is the scammer sending a message saying the victim has been mentioned in a post, so they're tempted to click the post link. Once it was clicked, it would download malware or ransomware with a malicious Chrome extension onto their computer. Then, when the victim logged in to Facebook with the browser, they would hijack their account and change privacy settings, steal data, and try to expand the attack on the victim’s Facebook friends.  
  • Spear Phishing 
    This is more advanced and designed to be sent to a specific person. If someone tries this, they’ll already have some of the following info about this person: name, email address, employer, job title, etc. 

What Is Spear Phishing?  

Spear phishing does fall under the phishing umbrella, but has a target such as a person or entire business. The goal of these attacks is for the victims to provide their credentials. 

They're not looking for financial info typically – rather, sensitive company data and trade secrets. By obtaining this info, they can make a large sum of money by blackmailing the company in question or selling the data. 

Related: How To Remove Virus From USB Drive Without Losing Data 

coding computer

Spear Phishing Vs Phishing Attacks: Differences Explained  

So, what's the difference between spear phishing vs phishing? Let's look at the main variations between them.  


While phishing is aimed at a wide audience, spear fishing is aimed at a very specific people or group of people/organization. 

Convincing Messages

With phishing, messages are sent in a general way – perhaps something that is made to imitate your bank or a password reset. With spear phishing, this message is personalized and will include information specific to that person or organization to look convincing. 

Automated vs Manual Attack

Phishing is automated – almost like a bot is running the show. Spear fishing is all manual and personalized. 

Types of Attacker (Hackers)

With phishing, the scammers are typically cybercriminals or professional hackers. Spear phishers, on the other hand, are business-oriented and/or malicious code distributors. They know exactly what to look for and aren't typically looking for bank info. 

Harmful Effects Of Phishing Attacks   

  • Loss Of Data 
    Clicking on a fake link in an email can give all control over a system and, thus, data stored on it, to a scammer. They can use this to steal, corrupt, and delete data.
  • Damaged Reputation 
    Data breaches can cause clients to lose trust in a company, even if they’ve successfully evaded all phishing attacks before.
  • Direct Monetary Loss  
    Extra money will likely be necessary in order to manage this with the help of PR and in order to manage identity protection, compensate affected customers/employees, boost anti-phishing efforts, and more. 
  • Loss Of Productivity 
    Instead of focusing on work that employees’ roles consist of, many will have to spend their time instead trying to recover lost data, investigating the attack, taking systems offline to clean, as well as the fact that many people may be distracted talking about the issue. 
  • Loss Of Customers 
    Customers may be dissuaded from using a business because they may feel like their data will be at risk of another data breach. 
  • Financial Penalties 
    If customer data ends up in the public domain, the only entities responsible will be the business affected by phishers. For example, there may be large regulatory fines given for "mishandling" the data. 
  • Intellectual Property Theft 
    Intellectual property is often much more valuable than “just” money. This can be obtained through phishing attacks, and it could seriously affect the business in question if trade secrets are revealed.
  • Loss Of Company Value 
    Due to the aforementioned issues, a company can be valued at a lower number due to the potential loss of investors' trust as well. They may choose to use their funds to a company that has not experienced these issues. 
woman holding card and using laptop

How To Prevent Standard & Spear Phishing Attacks In The Future

Standard Phishing

To help prevent standard phishing attacks, first make sure to look at the site's URL in the address line. If it doesn't start with "HTTPS," as "S" means "secure," don't even go there. Then, look up the domain in the email address and make sure it's legitimate.  

If there are any attachments in the email, look at the file type at the end of the file name. If it ends in .zip, .exe., .bat., and .scr then don’t even click on it. Finally, just copy and paste the sender’s email into Google. If it’s a mass email campaign, you’re very likely to get search results about it being a fake account.  

Spear Phishing

With spear fishing, you’ll need to be even more wary. 

  1. 1
    Make sure to find an AI solution that can detect and block any potential attacks – especially those that include malicious links/attachments.  
  2. 2
    Your average email security may be good, but for spear phishing, it may be so personalized that it doesn’t catch it.  
  3. 3
    There are many AI resources that can alert you if accounts have been compromised.  
  4. 4
    Using DMARC authentication can buff domain mimicking and brand hijacking.  
  5. 5
    Multi-factor authentication is a massive help and offers another layer of protection in case someone tries to obtain login information.  
  6. 6
    Train staff to spot potential attacks and report them.  

People Also Ask (FAQs)

What does a phishing link look like?  

A lot of times, it is going to have a fake, non-existent website or a site that is similar to a popular site, with a slightly different spelling. It could also look like a request from your bank, from your email server, an account that may appear like it’s trying to help you reset your password, etc.  

What happens if I click a phishing link?  

If you’ve already clicked it, make sure you don’t enter any data or login credentials. Immediately disconnect from the internet and scan your device/computer with an antivirus software. Do the full scan. Change your passwords. Make sure you’ve backed up your files and data somewhere safe, like on an external hard drive (make sure to disconnect this if it’s connected).  

Related: What's The Difference Between Firewall & Antivirus Software?

What do I do if I respond to a phishing text?  

First, make sure to never click any links or call any numbers in these texts. If you've provided information, make sure to call your bank, government, agency, etc., relevant to the data you provided (if any). Even if you didn't provide any information, you should contact the police and the relevant company or agency that the phishing text is trying to imitate.

Finally, responding to a phishing text can install malware on your phone. If you can take it to your phone service provider, have them help you with identifying and removing it.  

Related: What's The Difference Between APT & Malware?


Now that you’re practically an expert in the differences between spear phishing and phishing, do you feel like you’re able to better spot an attack?

We hope that our guide has been able to help you so that you never have to deal with phishing or spear phishing issues. Thanks for tuning in, and we’ll see you again soon!