Top Risks
Updated August 17, 2017 (originally published July 06, 2017) Updated August 17, 2017

Phishing for Information, Part 1: How Phishers Bait Their Hooks With Information You Volunteer

3 min. read

Seven minutes until his next meeting, Charles Clutterbuck, the CFO of Boring Aeroplanes, had just enough time to answer a few emails. He flopped onto his padded leather chair and tapped out his password. A dozen emails glowed unread at the top of his inbox stack. He skimmed down the list of names and subjects when one caught his eye. It was a from an old friend. With a nod, he clicked it up. “How’s it going, Clutt?” the email began. He smiled at the old nickname from the dorm days when he first met Bill. Funny that Bill was emailing him at his work address, but that question was quickly forgotten as he skimmed the message.


    From: Bill Fescue
    Sent: Thursday, July 6, 2017 12:16
    To: Charles Clutterbuck
    Subject: My new hoss

    How’s it going, Clutt?

    Hit the track with my new Falkens and, guess what? Tremendous grip!     No more wheel spins. Check out my track time and cornering:

    See you at next week’s Autocross?



As you might have guessed, this is a spear phishing email.

In spear phishing, the attacker leverages gathered information to create a specific request to trick someone into running something or giving up personal information. It’s an extremely successful technique and attackers know this. In fact, the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) reports that phishing has gone up 5,753% over the past 12 years.1

Phishers work by impersonating someone trusted by the target, which requires crafting a message that is credible and easily acceptable. To do this, the phisher needs information about the target to construct their disguise and bait the hook. They get this information by research and reconnaissance.

In the example above, an executive at a military plane parts supplier received an email apparently from a friend. His interest in car racing—as well as his friend’s name and style of speaking—was plucked off social media. The attacker spent a few minutes of web research on car racing to get the vernacular right and then created an email account in the friend’s name. The link is to a site with a video server that sends an exploit geared to the target’s laptop operating system (gleaned from research on the company infrastructure). It loads specialized malware built to exfiltrate aerospace intellectual property. Easy, peasy.

So, we know that attackers are gathering information from social networks and various Internet sources, but just how much information is available? Defenders spend quite a bit of energy preventing the obvious information leaks like passwords, crypto keys, and personally identifiable information (PII). Those are high impact information leaks, but what about the low impact ones?

It’s worth exploring what's typically discovered in an attacker’s passive electronic reconnaissance. And, that’s not counting active recon like calling the company’s main phone number and trying to extract information via pretexting2 or going onsite for dumpster diving.3 This is all low-risk stuff that can happen in secret from afar. But, as the Great Detective said, “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”4

In part 2 of this five-part series, we’ll look at how phishers collect information about an organization’s employees.

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