Preventing Spear Phishing

Spear phishing attacks target a specific person or organization with detailed, personalized messages posing as a trusted contact. Through these messages, the cybercriminal builds trust with their target, tricking them into sharing sensitive data or providing access to their systems.

Since these attacks are so sophisticated and well-researched, they can be difficult to spot. Here’s what you need to know about spear phishing campaigns and how to prevent them at your law firm.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Spear phishing is a form of social engineering where cyber criminals pose as a trusted source to gain access to sensitive information. The messages are highly customized based on the target company.
  • Since law firms store sensitive client data, they are often targeted by cybercriminals with spear phishing campaigns.
  • Spear phishing campaigns are often characterized by urgent and unusual requests, as well as slightly altered email addresses.
  • A strong cybersecurity strategy and employee education can help prevent spear phishing at your law firm.

 

Why Are Law Firms Prime Targets for Spear Phishing?

No company is safe from spear phishing attacks, but law firms are particularly popular targets for cybercriminals for a few reasons.

Law firms work with a lot of sensitive data. This includes personally identifiable information for both clients and employees, as well as financial data. 

Some law firms also have access to protected health information or intellectual property as part of their work. 

Hackers could use this sensitive data to conduct identity theft or conduct ransomware attacks, so they see law firms as a very lucrative target.

The nature of legal work also makes it easy for hackers to research law firms online. Cybercriminals will assess your firm’s website as well as publicly-available court documents to learn more about your work. With this information, they can pose as a trusted colleague or client and create messages that seem legitimate.

Additionally, many law firms do not have a robust cybersecurity strategy in place to address these risks. For example, only 34% of law firms have an incident response plan.

 

Common Spear Phishing Tactics

Common Spear Phishing Tactics

 

Many cybercriminals have a wide range of spear phishing techniques in their arsenal. Here are some of the most common spear phishing techniques to keep an eye out for in your work communications.

 

Email Impersonations

Spear phishing campaigns often involve impersonating a trusted contact, such as another legal professional, a vendor, or even a client. This differs from traditional phishing scams, which often focus on impersonating large organizations rather than specific people.

These impersonations can look different depending on the size of your law firm, the type of cases you work on, and even your individual job title. For example, you might receive an email from someone claiming to be a new employee requesting access credentials. 

These scams often target large firms with a hybrid or remote workforce, where team members wouldn’t necessarily meet all new employees.

 

Urgent Request Scams

Many cybercriminals will use a sense of urgency when writing phishing emails. This approach assumes that the recipient will take action immediately, rather than assessing the validity of the request.

This technique is common in many different types of social engineering attacks. In a spear phishing message, the cybercriminal will make an urgent request that is specifically relevant to your company. 

They might invent an overdue bill that needs to be paid immediately, or a confidential client issue that needs to be fixed.

 

AI and Improved Capabilities

Over the past few years, artificial intelligence tools have become widely available. Many cybercriminals have turned to generative AI tools to write spear phishing emails and text messages.

These tools help cybercriminals write messages faster and avoid grammatical errors. The result is more sophisticated spear phishing campaigns that are more likely to make it past your organization’s security measures. 

These messages are also very convincing — one study found that 60% of participants fell for AI-generated phishing messages.

Some new generative AI tools are also capable of voice cloning. With this technology, cybercriminals could create spear phishing voicemails or even have AI-generated phone conversations. 

Law firms will need to introduce appropriate screening measures to identify and block spoofing in incoming phone calls.

 

How to Identify a Spear Phishing Email

Spear phishing emails may look legitimate at first glance, but there are some tell-tale signs to watch for that will give the scam away. Here’s how to identify a spear phishing email.

 

Urgency

As previously mentioned, many cybercriminals rely heavily on urgency in their phishing messages to get targets to act without thinking. If you get a message asking you to do something right away, stop to investigate first — especially if it involves sending money or sharing passwords.

 

Altered Email Address

When opening emails, always double-check the sender’s email account. Spear phishing emails typically use accounts with similar names to a trusted contact, but with small changes.

For example, you might receive an email from an address with a .co domain instead of .com. Keep in mind that users can also change the display names on their email addresses, so you may need to open up the full email header to see the details.

 

Unusual Requests

Cybercriminals will often conduct extensive research before sending a spear phishing message. However, they usually don’t have first-hand experience in the legal industry, and they likely won’t understand the ins and outs of your operations. This means that their messages might include very unusual requests that you wouldn’t get during a standard work day.

 

Hover Over (don’t click) on Links

Spear phishing messages typically include links to malicious websites or malware downloads. These links will be disguised as standard links.

Before clicking on a link, hover over it with your cursor to see where it leads. Don’t click on the link unless you’re 100% sure it leads to a safe website.

 

Be Wary of Attachments

Many spear phishing messages will also contain malicious attachments. In general, it’s best to avoid opening email attachments until they’ve been proven safe. Many antivirus software programs have file scanning features, which you can use to determine whether an attachment is malicious or not.

 

Preventative Measures to Safeguard Your Firm

Spear phishing and other cybersecurity threats can be devastating for your law firm and your clients. Here are some preventative measures you can take to keep your systems safe.

 

Implement Email Filters and Security Protocols

The first step to keeping spear phishing messages away from your law firm is to implement email filters. You can filter out emails based on the content or specific sender characteristics. 

You can also put additional security protocols in place to prevent data breaches in other parts of your systems.

 

Regularly Update and Patch Software

If you fail to update your software programs, you leave your systems vulnerable to a wide range of intrusions. Schedule time to install new updates and patches as they become available. 

This makes it more difficult for bad actors to breach your systems and launch large-scale social engineering attacks.

 

Employee Training and Awareness Programs

Every employee in your firm is a possible target for spear phishing campaigns. Provide regular training sessions to educate your employees about the signs of phishing and what to watch out for. Include simulations to test their knowledge in real-life settings.

 

Establish Clear Procedures for Verifying Unusual Requests

Create policies for your employees to follow if they receive an unusual request via email, text message, or social media. 

These requests should be reviewed and approved by a cybersecurity expert, such as your managed service provider or in-house IT team, before moving forward. 

If the message is from someone who claims to be working for your organization or one of your partners, you’ll also need to verify their identity first.

 

What to Do If You Detect a Phishing Attempt

If you receive an email that you suspect is a phishing attempt, do not respond. Do not open any attachments or click on any links in the email.

First, report it to your superiors, your IT team, and any other relevant parties at your law firm. You can also report phishing attempts to your email provider and to government agencies like the FTC and FBI.

Once you’ve reported the phishing attempt, the next step is to conduct an audit on your systems and assess for damage. If you find evidence of a data breach, take steps to re-secure that data and communicate with clients accordingly.

After the initial concerns have been resolved, you’ll need to re-assess your broader security strategy to correct any remaining vulnerabilities and prevent future incidents. 

You may want to partner with a managed IT services provider to get expert cybersecurity advice for this strategy.