Spear phishing attacks

Watch Out for AI-Powered Spear Phishing

How hackers will use machine learning to sharpen the spear

For hackers, spear phishing has always been a tradeoff. But that’s coming to an end. Artificial intelligence will enable the creation of large volumes of targeted messages meant to steal user credentials.

What is phishing?

What is phishing?

Definition: Sending emails, text messages, and other communications that trick users to click on a malicious, link often with the end goal of obtaining the user’s ID and password.

Phishing is about volume, casting a wide net.

Phishing targets

What is spear phishing?

Definition: Similar to phishing, except the messages are much more targeted, increasing the chances of the user falling for the attack.

Spear phishing is often used for the big fish, like the
C-suite and privileged users.


Hackers stalk the target

Gather information
about the target.

Hackers write spam mail

Craft a high-quality,
personalized message.

Spam mail with links

Send the message with a
link to malicious software.

Hackers steal passwords

Let the linked software/website
steal the user's credentials.

Spear phishing is costly

The Spear Phishing Tradeoff

Increased labor for increased chance of success

Cost of gathering information

Gathering information is time-intensive.

Cost of creating spam mail

Crafting a quality message takes time and requires
fluency in the target language, adding expense.

Spear phishing works

30% success rate

30% of spear phishing
campaigns are deemed

40x ROI

Spear phishing has a
40X greater return rate than
regular phishing


95% of attacks on business
networks result from successful
spear phishing

Because spear phishing is hard, attackers target a low number of victims

77% attack only 10 targets

77% of spear phishing attacks target only 10 email inboxes

33% attack 1 target

33% of spear phishing attacks focus on just one email inbox

But that’s about to change…

How AI and machine learning helps hackers

AI Eliminates the Tradeoff

Three ways hackers will use AI and machine learning for spear phishing:

Quickly gather useful personal information. Using algorithms like those in marketing and ad targeting systems, machine learning leverages data to create a sense of urgency in the victim.

Find personal data that users are willing to pay a ransom for. Based on demographic data and gathered personal information, attackers can leverage machine learning to predict the best victims and approach.

Natural language text in phishing emails. By using natural language AI, attackers can make an email sound like it came from a victim's boss, financial institution, co-worker, or friend.

AI improves spear phishing


Personal information such as work relationships

Events and planned activities shared on social platforms

The tone of writing to create a sense of urgency

AI will allow spear phishing hackers to target

AI improves spear phishing attack outcomes

How do you protect yourself and
your organization?

Recognize spear phishing attacks

Stop the click

Educate users about the growing sophistication of hackers, so they question unknown messages they receive.

Defense against spear phishing attacks

Prevent access

Use multi-factor authentication or, even better, contextual authentication tools such as SmartFactor Authentication to add AI to your security defense. As a last line of defense, MFA requires additional information during login to thwart criminals trying to access your corporate data and systems using stolen credentials.

About OneLogin

OneLogin is the identity platform for secure, scalable, and smart experiences that connect people to technology. With the OneLogin Trusted Experience Platform, customers can connect all of their applications, identify potential threats, and act quickly. Headquartered in San Francisco, CA, OneLogin secures over 2,500 customers worldwide, including Airbus, Stitch Fix, and AAA. To learn more visit www.onelogin.com.

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