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What is whaling in cyber security?

Whaling Attack

Whaling is a carefully personalized phishing attack that mimics a genuine email and targets senior executives. Whaling is a social engineering-based activity that lures victims to do a secondary action, including initiating a wire transfer.

Whaling doesn’t demand a high level of technical understanding but can yield enormous profits. As a result, it is among the most significant risks businesses face. The most targeted institutions are the financial institutions and payment solutions service providers. 

The attack has gone beyond these institutions and increased to e-commerce websites, internet services, and cloud storage websites.

Whaling Definition

Whaling is a type of cyber-attack in which an attacker uses spear-phishing techniques to target a reputable individual. Any company is as safe as its cybersecurity. Therefore, ensuring every staff recognizes a phishing attack is critical to keeping classified information safe.

If you employ an executive assistant, such an individual should also be taught how to spot phishing and whaling attempts. These are your primary line of defense from getting tricked into giving out information about your business.

Differences between whaling, phishing, and spear-phishing

The area of cyber security is full of metaphors for several reasons, and it’s easy to get things mixed up. Therefore, let’s set the record straight about these contrasting terminologies.

Whaling, as already indicated, is an online attack that focuses on senior executives or those in high authority, enticing them to initial wire transfer.

Phishing is a different cyberattack that impersonates a genuine source using SMS, emails, and other direct messaging to mislead the target into providing confidential information. Phishing attacks sometimes end in losing money or their account.

Spear-Phishing is a form of phishing attack in which the receiver receives tailored information that appears to come from someone they know directly.

Cyber Security Attacks

How does the Whaling attack work?

In a whaling attack, the attackers send emails that look like they came from a trusted website or individual, usually a company, partner, or customer account. A whaling email will include adequate personal information or references from online research to persuade the receiver that it is genuine. 

Whaling attacks may also encourage users to click a link that takes them to a faked website that mirrors the original website, where data can be collected, or malware can be downloaded. Victims of a whaling attack may be enticed to disclose sensitive information such as bank account numbers, payroll information, or tax returns. 

Alternatively, the attacker may request authorization to transfer money to a bank account that later turns out to be fake. A whaling attack is frequently carried out to steal money, data, or gain access to network resources that can result in a bigger attack.

Objectives of a whaling attack

  • Money: Spear-phishing attacks can be used to deceive victims into sending money via wire transfer or blackmail an organization after the information is stolen.
  • Control: An attacker can use stolen information to maneuver through an organization’s network.
  • A supply chain attack occurs when hackers breach an organization’s supply chain and exploit sensitive components. Cybercriminals might conceivably target a government agency or website by exploiting their contractor for a man-in-the-middle assault using whale phishing.
  • Corporate espionage: A hacker can steal copyrighted material or trade secrets to give competitors the upper edge.
  • Malware: An online criminal team might use a whaling attack to deceive them into downloading dangerous malware such as rootkits, keyloggers, and ransomware.
  • A victim of a whale attack may face a severe loss of reputation because of their personal vendetta.

How to Identify a Whaling Attack

A whaling attack is more complex to notice than a regular phishing attempt since the attackers usually spend significant time crafting email messages and making websites appear authentic. Here are a few indicators that an email could be a whaling attack:

  • An email address does not precisely match the company domain from which the email claims to be sent. To deceive the recipient, attackers will frequently replace a “m” in a web address with an “r”
  • A request for sensitive information or money to be wired to a specific account.
  • A sense of urgency motivates the recipient to act fast, often with a hint of fear of negative consequences if the demanded action is not completed immediately.

Whaling Attack examples 

While there have been several high-profile whaling attacks, we intend to highlight two whaling examples that made the news. 

Firstly is that of Snapchat, where a high-ranking employee fell victim to a CEO hoax email, exposing employee payroll information. The company filed a report about the event to the FBI while providing all employees free two years of identity theft insurance. 

Secondly is the widespread whale attack on a Seagate executive who mistakenly revealed all former and current employees’ W-2 forms. The information included 10,000 employees’ income details. Another incident was that of Walter Stephen, that got sacked because of his inability to detect a whale attack. He wired over $56 million to the fraudsters before realizing it. 

How organizations can prevent Whaling Attacks

The regular advice for an online attack is prevention and protection. The same applies to whaling attacks. Therefore, executives and other targets must adhere to such practices. They should be wary of clicking email attachments because a phishing attack requires the target to take action.

Organizations can improve their defenses by applying some prevention and protection methods and enlightening staff about any potential whaling attack.

First, be aware of the types of information that public-facing staff are disseminating about CEOs. Details like birthdays and hometowns, as well as preferred hobbies or sports that can be easily accessed online, can help phishing emails appear more authentic. 

Major public events might also lend credence to whaling emails. In addition, remind managers or spokespersons that they’ll be in the spotlight in more ways than one at high-publicity events, such as a large industry meeting or company event, and to keep an eye on their inbox.

Next, cultivate a “trust but verify” email culture within your organization. Encourage employees at all levels to double-check unexpected messages before replying. Most importantly, develop a phishing awareness program with content tailored to senior management and staff about the danger of whaling emails. 

Not only will a multi-faceted phishing awareness program educate fundamental principles for preventing whaling attacks, but it will also enable workers to practicalize it in a safe environment. Run simulated whaling attacks regularly to keep staff skills sharp at recognizing possible phishing campaigns.

Conclusion

Whaling is not different from any online activities that intend to trick users into giving out their information. However, a whaling attack is targeted at a high-profile target such as a CEO or senior government official. 

Staying protected from such attacks is very important. Since the stakes are higher, hackers are putting in additional work and effort to ensure their online tricks are successful. It is paramount to check every email that you receive to ensure it is from the right source before sending it.

While detecting a professional whaling attack is hard, staying alert to a likely attack is the first step. Prevention and protection are critical to staying ahead of these online attackers as they intensify their efforts to lure the unsuspicious target to give in to their demands.

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