There are many strategies a cybercriminal may use to attempt to infiltrate a company’s network and access its data. While strategies like phishing emails have brought varying levels of success, some ambitious hackers have taken these techniques a step further by targeting high-ranking senior staff within organizations up to and including the C-suite; this technique is known as whaling phishing. Here’s what you need to know about whaling phishing, what it is, how it works, and what can be done about it.
What is Whaling Phishing?
Whaling is a common cyberattack strategy that uses spear phishing methods to target a high-profile target, such as the C-suite. Bad actors know that executives and high-ranking employees are frequently more aware of the most frequently-used scam tactics—mostly because they’ve received the extensive cybersecurity awareness training that comes with their respective positions. These roles will also often bring with them tighter security courtesy of the IT team. Therefore, when an attacker is seeking to execute a whaling attack, they will need to look beyond the old tactics associated with phishing and turn to more sophisticated methods.
How Does Whaling Phishing Work?
While there are a number of signs of a common phishing attempt including introducing the email with a generic salutation like “dear valued member” or misspellings, whaling is much more sophisticated. A cybercriminal who is carrying out a whaling attack will research their target to the extent they feel is necessary to convince the target that the communication is legitimate. Often, this takes the form of using social media to craft the message.
The message will be typically be disguised as a believable communique—the email address will look like it’s from a believable source and may contain corporate logos or links to a fraudulent website (which has also been designed to look like a website the target will trust). The email is sent, designed to encourage the target to take a secondary action such as:
- Clicking a link to a site which delivers malware
- Requesting a transfer of funds to the attacker’s bank account
- Requests for additional details about the business or individual to help them conduct further attacks.
There are many possible consequences for a whaling attack, including financial loss and reputational damage.
How to Prevent Whaling?
So, with these possible consequences, businesses should be aware of how they can prevent a whaling attack or minimize the possibility of the attack’s success. The obvious solution of training executives what to be aware of is just that, too obvious. There are three primary solutions:
- Be careful about what is posted on social media
As mentioned, social media is a key resource for prospective whalers. In fact, most information cybercriminals use in these attacks can be found on social media, so high-ranking staff members in particular should be careful about what information they share on social media.
Executives in the C-Suite can be targets of especially crafty phishing scams.
- Double-check and verify sending addresses
Most whaling emails emphasize a matter of urgency in an attempt to trick the target into acting before verifying the sender. Understanding the characteristics of a phishing email will help the employees to identify them. With this in mind, employees and top executives alike should know what to look for when verifying an email. Popular methods include seemingly small adjustments in words or in punctuation. For example, if your organization’s address template is firstname.lastname@example.org, then the hacker may alter their message to take the form of email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or even .email@example.com. While in the context of this blog, these alterations may seem obvious, but in your email client, they can be much more subtle if you’re not specifically looking for them. Remember, cybercriminals wouldn’t use these methods if they weren’t effective. Therefore, it’s always important to know how to double-check URLs and email addresses before taking the risk of exposing private information.
- Automated solutions
While the first two steps for prevention are important, what if there was a way to stop whaling emails before they even got to the target’s inbox? Thankfully, new technologies and solutions have brought with them the adoption of specialty security systems to flag down any form of both whaling and phishing attacks. While no tool will ever truly have a 100% effectiveness rate—cybercriminals are always looking for ways to bypass these systems—automated systems help companies take the proactive stance against whaling phishing.
Whether your organization is a small or medium business or a local government, anyone can be the target of a whaling phishing attack, which is why having a team of cybersecurity experts equipped with the knowledge, solutions, and certifications you need to keep your employees and data safe. Innovative Integration can help you detect the hard-to-detect. Click here to contact us!