A user at risk has received a phishing message that seems targeted
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How to Recognize Spear-Phishing and What to Do

How to tell if a phishing message is targeted and what measures to take to warn clients and mitigate the attack


A user at risk has received a phishing message by email or through a social networking platform.

The message seems targeted and might be aimed at the single user or at a certain group of the civil society.


  1. Analyze the case and possibly gather more information on similar incidents to evaluate if the phishing attack is targeted.

    Among the things we should consider to confirm the hypothesis of spearphishing, we should look for:

    • A customized text, containing information on the user or other signs of social engineering.
    • The usage of the user’s language, especially if it’s a dialect.
    • We can confirm that the phishing campaign is targeting in particular members of the civil society.
    • Any attempt to gather information on the target (phone number, email address, login id).
  2. Do a search on MISP following the instructions in Article #354: Search in CiviCERT’s MISP Instance to check if similar attacks have been seen by the community.

  3. If the suspicion of spear-phishing is confirmed by some of the above elements, but only few cases have been observed, we can try to gather more evidence by writing to intermediaries selected according to the area where the campaign has taken place or, if the campaign is not restricted to one area, by getting in touch with all intermediaries and partners that may be interested in this kind of attack.

    When writing to intermediaries to gather evidence on a possible spear-phishing campaign, we should use the template in Article #280: Warning on Possible Spear-Phishing Attacks.

  4. If the phishing attack is confirmed:

    • If the attack is based on email messages, we should proceed as described in Article #58: Client Receives a Suspicious/Phishing Email to analyze the email and report any suspicious website or IP.
    • If the attack is launched through a social networking website, we should follow the specific escalation guidelines of the involved platform to help recover any hacked account, as well as report any malicious account involved. In no case should we request the platform to disclose the attacker’s IP address.
    • Add the event to MISP following the instructions in Article #355: How to Add an Event to CiviCERT’s MISP Instance.


  • More information on targeted phishing attacks can be found in Citizen Lab’s Targeted Threats report, specifically in the appendix, which lays out an easy way to “grade” a communication on how targeted and customized an attack is.