Whaling attacks, often referred to as CEO fraud or executive phishing, are sophisticated cyberthreats targeting an organization's high-profile individuals. These attacks are carefully designed to deceive top executives, such as CEOs and CFOs, into giving away sensitive information. The term whaling reflects the high status of these targets, who have significant access to critical data and financial assets.
In these attacks, cybercriminals pretend to be trusted contacts. They use social engineering techniques to manipulate their victims into transferring funds or revealing confidential data.
To better understand whaling attacks, recognize their signs, and protect your organization's leaders and assets from phishing, continue reading.
The goal of a whaling attack is to deceive top personnel within an organization into taking actions that benefit the attacker for financial gain, data theft, or other malicious purposes. This can include:
Whaling attacks typically target high-ranking individuals within organizations. Executives like CEOs and CFOs are prime targets, given their broad decision-making power and access to sensitive information. Senior managers who control valuable company data and oversee financial transactions are also highly vulnerable.
But the attacks don't stop there. The risk also extends to personnel in human resources due to their handling of sensitive employee details. Employees in the finance and IT departments are at the forefront because they manage crucial financial data and system access, respectively. Even board members, equipped with insider knowledge and substantial influence, are often attractive targets for cybercriminals.
Personnel with significant authority or access to crucial data in an organization face the risk of whaling attacks. Without regular cyber-awareness training, an attack could cost your business millions, as global data breach costs averaged US$4.91 million in 2022.
Successful whaling attacks can severely harm an organization's data, finances, operations, and reputation. These impacts can include:
Phishing, spear phishing, and whaling are all types of cyberattacks—deliberate and malicious attempts to steal information or money from individuals and organizations. The difference between the three lies in their scope and targets.
Phishing is a broad term for cyberattacks that lure potential victims into taking actions like revealing sensitive corporate or personal data. They use deceptive websites, phone calls, text messages, or emails to target a broad audience, hoping that someone will fall for their tricks.
Spear phishing targets specific individuals, like members of a particular department or industry. The messages used in spear phishing are often personalized, increasing the chances of deceiving the recipient.
Whaling is an even more targeted form of spear phishing that focuses on specific high-profile individuals within an organization. These attacks are highly specialized and meticulously crafted to deceive individuals who have access to critical business information or financial assets.
Whaling attacks use sophisticated deception tactics to target high-profile individuals within organizations. In these attacks, cybercriminals meticulously craft emails that seem to originate from trusted sources, familiar vendors, HR representatives, or even fellow senior executives. These emails are designed to look authentic, often including specific details obtained from the internet that lend credibility to their false identity.
By gathering intel and posing as trusted entities, attackers can trick their targets into taking actions that they otherwise wouldn't. This could range from sending bank account details and employee payroll information to authorizing large wire transfers into fraudulent bank accounts.
Whaling attacks are particularly challenging to detect because they often don't contain the usual red flags of phishing attempts, such as malicious attachments or links. Instead, they rely on social engineering and the perceived authority of the supposed sender to trick the recipient. This subtlety often allows them to bypass traditional email security measures, making them a dangerous and effective form of cyberattack.
Since phishing's first mention in Jerry Felix and Chris Hauck's 1987 paper, "System Security: A Hacker's Perspective," it has evolved from a broad scam to several types of refined attacks—including whaling. Today, attackers leverage social engineering tactics, prolonged interactions, artificial intelligence, and more to accomplish their malicious means.
Here are some notable changes in common whaling tactics that your employees and executives should be aware of:
Personalization and research
Early attackers used generic messages in their phishing attempts. Now, they conduct thorough research to personalize whaling emails, making them appear highly credible. They use details from social media, company announcements, and press releases to craft convincing narratives.
Instead of a single deceptive email, attackers now engage in prolonged interactions and work to build trust over time before making their fraudulent request. This approach makes it harder for victims to recognize they're under attack.
Modern attackers rapidly learn to leverage the latest technology for their own means. For instance, generative AI is used to craft emails that mimic genuine correspondence in style and tone, making them highly convincing. Phone-call scammers have also adopted AI technology to clone high-profile voices for their impersonations.
Compromised insider accounts
Instead of creating fake accounts, attackers increasingly compromise actual accounts of colleagues or subordinates to launch their whaling attempts, making their deceptive emails more credible.
Bypassing security measures
Modern whaling attacks are designed to evade traditional security measures. For example, instead of using malicious links or attachments that can be flagged, attackers might use secure document-sharing platforms or request direct replies.
Exploiting current events
Attackers now frequently leverage current events, like global pandemics or economic crises, to create a sense of urgency or relevance in their whaling phishing attempts.
To learn more about how phishing attacks have changed through history, see the Security History: The Evolution of Phishing timeline.
This WHALE acronym can help you rapidly identify whaling attacks:
Spoofing is an incredibly common tactic used in whaling attacks. An email is sent from a domain name that looks a lot like a well-known organization or business. Not only are email addresses manipulated to look legitimate, but email graphics are designed to mimic those that are from trusted companies.
A commonly used tactic is to place lowercase letters "r" and "n" next to each other in an email address to look like the letter "m" at first glance (like "arnazon," "walrnart," or "bankofarnerica").
Cybercriminals also know to send whaling attacks through email using addresses from domains like Gmail and Yahoo because they know these pass most authentication checks. Victims might not even look at the sender domain and follow their request if the content and branding of the emails looks convincing enough.
Phishing scammers use alarmist language to manipulate targets, and it can be particularly effective in the fast-paced business world. Subject lines in whaling attacks use fear and urgency to push the recipient to act quickly. Words like urgent or important are common red flags used to capture readers' attention and mislead them.
However, attackers use more than fear to trick their targets. Terms like Request, Follow Up, or Fwd: are attempts to make the recipient believe they've communicated before, creating a false sense of familiarity.
Malicious attachments are not as common in whaling attacks as they are in spear phishing emails, but they are still used in many types of phishing attacks. Be aware that malware or ransomware can be hidden in .zip files, .exe files, PDFs, Word documents, and Excel spreadsheets.
Cybercriminals often collect their target's data through free online services like Google Forms or Typeforms—sites that can evade standard security filters. To avoid falling for such attacks, scrutinize forms that request any sensitive information, even if they seem trustworthy.
An email that looks like it comes from a trusted source doesn't mean it did. A sense of familiarity you feel to an unknown sender may have been created through extensive research. Attackers can glean a plethora of personal details from social media and public records, including addresses, phone numbers, previous workplaces, names of family members, or pet names.
If there is any doubt, send an email to the correct address you have on file to confirm the request. Do not reply to the suspicious email. If you have the presumed sender's phone number, give them a call, or send a text message for peace of mind.
Whaling phishing attacks often take the form of carefully crafted emails or messages that appear to come from a high-ranking company official or a trusted external partner. For instance, a common example is an email from a company's CEO to the finance department. The attacker, posing as the CEO, urgently requests a wire transfer to an external account for a confidential deal. The message might contain specific details about the company's operations, gleaned from prior research, to enhance its credibility. When the finance department wires the money, it is sent to the attacker's fraudulent account.
Another common scenario involves an email that appears to be from a trusted vendor or partner requesting immediate payment of an invoice, with the bank details conveniently changed to an account controlled by the attacker.
In some sophisticated cases, an attacker might compromise an executive's legitimate email account and send requests for sensitive information like employee tax forms or login credentials to critical systems. The personalized, targeted nature of whaling attacks makes them challenging to detect and prevent.
In a BEC attack, cybercriminals impersonate a company executive to deceive employees, customers, or vendors into transferring money or sensitive data. This often involves hacking or spoofing the executive's email to send fraudulent requests for wire transfers or confidential information.
Similar to BEC, VEC attacks involve impersonating a vendor or supplier. Attackers send fraudulent invoices or payment change requests to companies, aiming to redirect payments to their own accounts.
While less common in whaling since they're easier to detect, some email phishing attacks include malware-laden attachments. These attacks involve sending emails with seemingly legitimate attachments, like invoices or corporate documents. When the recipient opens the attachment, malware is installed on their system, which can be used for data theft, ransomware attacks, or further infiltration.
In this scenario, attackers impersonate company executives and send requests to finance or accounting departments for urgent payments, often citing confidential business reasons. The goal is to deceive employees into transferring funds to fraudulent accounts.
Using stolen credentials, attackers can also gain access to internal payment systems like payment platforms and create fake vendors, alter receipts, or redirect payments to their accounts.
With the stolen email credentials of senior executive or high-level employee, an attacker can request the business' payroll or finance department to change to direct-deposit information. Posing as the executive, they request their own paycheck, or that of an employee's, be sent to the fraudulent bank account.
To block whaling phishing attacks, you need a multilayered approach that combines security tools, employee education, and consistent security policies. Protect your business from cyber whaling with these three key steps:
Implement advanced security tools: Use email filtering software that incorporates artificial intelligence and machine learning to detect and block sophisticated phishing attempts. Employ domain authentication protocols like Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC), small form factor pluggable (SPF), and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) to prevent email spoofing. Later in this page, we'll cover the comprehensive security solutions that can safeguard your assets and data from whaling attacks.
Educate and train employees: Provide regular cyber awareness sessions for all employees, with specialized instruction for executives and financial teams. Simulated phishing exercises can help staff recognize whaling attacks and respond effectively.
Enforce verification procedures: Establish strict procedures for verifying financial transactions and sensitive information requests. This could include multiperson approval processes, telephone confirmations, or other verification methods outside of email communication.
When implemented together, these strategies can significantly reduce your organization's risk of falling victim to whaling attacks.
Blocking whaling attacks requires three types of measures: security tools, training, and best practices. Here are six important steps you can take to implement these defense tactics and safeguard your company from whaling phishing attacks:
Using MFA across your organization for all users can significantly reduce the impact of whaling attacks. MFA protects your users and applications by requiring two or more identity verification methods before granting access to users.
For instance, if login credentials are compromised in a whaling attack, the attacker is still unable to breach an MFA-protected account because they are unable to provide the additional authentication steps.
Approximately 50% of all data breaches result from compromised credentials. Organizations can substantially reduce their risk of business email compromise and other whaling tactics with strict password policies and employee training on best practices.
For strong, reliable password security:
A multilayered email security strategy is essential to protect your organization against diverse phishing threats. Integrate AMP software into your defense strategy to detect, block, and remove malware that might be deployed in a whaling attack.
Advanced malware is engineered to infiltrate and evade detection seamlessly. However, with AMP, the likelihood and impact of a breach are significantly minimized. Even if an attacker manages to bypass the first line of defense, the damage from ransomware, worms, Trojans, spyware, adware, and other malware types is mitigated and corrected.
As modern whaling attacks employ advancing tactics, adopting proactive anti-whaling measures like robust email security solutions can safeguard your business, employees, and users against data breaches and identity theft.
Look for an email security solution that offers advanced detection and response capabilities, with algorithms that scrutinize thousands of signals across identity, behavior, and language. Cisco Secure Email Threat Defense doesn't just detect typical attack indicators in emails—it neutralizes any potential threat before it can harm your systems.
Frequent backups and security patches can be invaluable in fortifying defenses against whaling attacks. Maintained backups create a safety net, so you can recover data in the event of a breach and minimize the losses that can result from a cybersecurity event.
Patch management is just as important because they fortify your software defenses against attacks. Security patches provide passive, yet essential protection against attackers by addressing vulnerabilities that could be exploited in targeted whale phishing attacks.
Incorporating anti-whaling training into your security awareness programs is key, especially for high-level executives and common targets. Providing updated security information to all employees fortifies the organization but is especially critical for employees most likely to be targeted.
Training shouldn't be a one-time initiative. As whaling attacks continue to evolve, so should the knowledge of your employees. Incorporate anti-whaling education into the onboarding process for all new recruits and supply ongoing, up-to-date training for current personnel, particularly those in vulnerable positions.
Protecting your organization's most sensitive data against modern whaling attacks and other phishing threats requires more than one solution. But Cisco has simplified cybersecurity by bringing together the security tools you need for comprehensive security across all connections. Cisco Security Cloud suites leverage the power of AI to help you secure your users, fortify your email communications and infrastructure, and quickly remediate attacks.
The sooner a whaling attack is reported, the higher the chances of mitigating its impact and preventing further incidents. Follow these steps to effectively report a whaling attack:
Notify internal teams: Immediately inform your organization's cybersecurity or IT team, and if relevant, your financial department. They can take immediate action to secure systems and accounts.
Contact authorities: Report the incident to local law enforcement and, if applicable, national cybercrime units. In the United States, you can report to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
Document and review: Maintain a record of all communications related to the attack. After the attack has been mitigated, conduct a security review to identify vulnerabilities, strengthen defenses, and prevent similar future incidents.