The internet has come a long way since its creation in 1991. Websites have grown and resources are endless in today’s online environment. Although there has been great advancement in online reliability and safety, cybercrime has never been so relevant. 


Cybercrime is the overarching term used to describe criminal activities over the internet. Within cybercrime, there is an activity called “Spear Phishing”. Unfortunately, spear phishing is a prevalent crime targeting professionals like accountants. 


It is important to know what to look for and what to do when you believe you are being targeted. So what is spear phishing and how can you and your clients be protected from a cyber security breach


What is Spear Phishing?


First, it is important to understand what exactly spear phishing is. Spear Phishing is a popular way for cyber criminals to steal data. In fact, this type of cyber crime accounts for 90% of all reported data breaches. When these cyber-attacks are going on, hackers will pose as a trusted individual, company or even government institution. They then try to trick their target into clicking a malicious link that holds malware. Malware is a form of software that allows data to be extracted. Usually this type of attack is performed using a non conspicuous email. Once this malware is on your computer system, it becomes easy for the criminal to access your data remotely from their location. When this malicious software is downloaded, it is difficult to remove it. 


It is important to realize the difference between phishing and spear phishing as well. Phishing is a more general term used to describe a perpetrator who will send a number of emails to a general group of people trying to trick them into a scam. Spear phishing is different as it is a more precise, specific attack that is targeting well-researched professionals. Targets can be either individuals or companies as a whole. Most times perpetrators will use social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to identify professionals in a certain role or industry. The cyber criminals will spend time finding targets they believe will fit their attack and send them a malicious email containing malware disguised as information that looks harmless to the untrained eye. 


Why Small Business, Especially, Accounting Firms are a Popular Spear Phishing Target


As previously mentioned, spear phishing is a specific, targeted attack which ultimately makes it harder to recognize and easier for hackers to carry out. As technology has advanced, access to small business firm information has become just as readily available as large business firm. In today’s environment, cyber criminals have begun targeting small business, particularly accountants and their firms more often than large scale businesses’. 


Larger companies have taken advanced precautionary measures that have made it more difficult for criminals to hack. These measures have taken a good amount of capital and manpower which smaller firms or even individual professionals might not have the resources for. This has made small businesses a prime candidate for spear phishing. 


Recently, small to medium sized accounting firms and their employees have found themselves being the victim of spear phishing for numerous reasons. One of the reasons has to do with the previous information shared above. Most times, smaller business firms will not have the necessary infrastructure in place to protect them from hackers gaining access to their emails and other data. Also, smaller firms are more likely to converse with clients in a more efficient  way that leads to more information being shared within the same point of contact. This makes it easier for hackers to locate and find information in one place. 


Another reason why smaller accounting firms have been targeted by spear phishing is because they handle large amounts of sensitive data. Accounting firms are a hotbed for information for hackers. Accounts with financial reports and personal information are things that cyber criminals are looking for to commit crimes like fraud. It has been found that financial fraud is often times carried out during tax season. Hackers pose as an individual using the information they stole and will file fake tax returns. Knowing this information is sensitive, hackers are known to hold this data for ransom as a data breach can severely tarnish a firm, its employees, and its clients reputation. It is important for smaller business firms to be aware of spear phishing and have a plan in place to protect themselves from attacks.


How to Protect Yourself and Your Firm from Spear Phishing Attacks


At this point you know that spear phishing is an online attack that has gained traction by targeting small business firms. Accounting firms are at a great risk when it comes to spear phishing because of the sensitive data they have within their systems and limited cyber security infrastructure in place. This is why it is so important to be knowledgeable of the signs to look for and identify cyber crime. Be sure to protect yourself with the right measures such as the ones highlighted below. 


Awareness Training 


Spear Phishing might be hard to recognize with an untrained eye, but being aware of what spear phishing emails and messages look like will help ensure you and your firm's safety. Spear phishing has a misconception of only happening to larger firms, so being aware of targeted malicious attacks on smaller businesses is vital. To go along with this, it is encouraged to conduct company wide awareness training that goes into everything from how phishing works to what spear phishing attacks look like.


Look for Warning Signs


Cyber criminals are good at disguising their emails to look valid, but many times there are warning signs that go unnoticed by accounting professionals. Such warning signs could be: grammatical errors, an unusual sense of urgency, shortened or strange links, and requests that are not usually carried out through email such as asking for personal information or passwords. Another way for them to lure potential victims is to include outside links, or attachments to the email that download malware when clicked. If you don’t know the sender, or if the link looks suspicious hover your mouse over the the url. By doing this you should see the complete url address. If the url address looks different or misspelled, it is a harmful link. 


Implement a Spear Phishing Defense


Having tighter in-house security measures, or implementing a cyber security defense software are two ways to ward of potential risk. Adjusting security settings on your email server or data hard drive is one in-house way to take precaution towards phishing attacks. Another in-house way to take precautions is to choose strong passwords for your accounts and look into using multi-factor authentication when gaining access to your data. If you interested in computer software, there are multiple types of cyber security defense programs offered at various prices, so be sure to look into purchasing a program that best suits your needs. Implementing both of these measures will ensure your personal and firms data is safe.


Understanding what spear phishing is and what it looks like is the first step to ensuring your accounting practice is not affected by cyber criminals. Knowing what measures to take to ultimately discourage cyber attacks will ensure your accounting firm’s safety.