With whaling attacks becoming rampant across organizations, it is critical to safeguard your sensitive data environments and IT assets from these threats. Like other types of social engineering attacks, whaling attacks can be mitigated by developing a high level of security awareness and implementing recommended best practices to protect your organization.
What Is Whaling In Cyber Security?
Whaling cyber attacks are phishing attacks, typically deployed via fraudulent emails, that target high ranking executives in an organization. Since high-ranking officials typically have access to sensitive data environments, a single click on a malicious link in a whaling email can result in a full-blown cyberattack with a potentially significant security impact across your organization.
Whaling attacks are high-risk, high-reward ventures for cybercriminals. Their targeted attacks’ chances of success depend on the awareness of a high-ranking official in an organization.
To help protect your organization against them, this blog will cover:
- The differences between phishing and whaling attacks
- Several common examples of whaling attacks
- How to prevent whaling attacks
Preparedness is critical when it comes to defending your organization from a whaling attack. The more prepared you are, the lesser the chances of cybercriminals compromising your data.
Differences Between Phishing & Whaling
The differences between whaling and phishing come down to the level of sophistication used in the attacks, with whaling attacks being much more sophisticated than phishing. Technically speaking, whaling is a form of phishing. However, it takes a far more targeted approach that makes it much more likely to succeed—and damaging, if so—than blanket phishing attacks.
Phishing as a broad category refers to all email and other social engineering campaigns that seek to make unsuspecting employees divulge information by clicking on a link or performing other activities. They do this by disguising the fact that the message is bait, as in real fishing.
But, compared to whaling, when cybercriminals attempt to breach your security systems via regular phishing, the stakes are much lower. Phishing emails are typically sent by bots. As such, the grammatical and spelling errors are much easier to identify. In some cases, employees may disregard the phishing emails or report them as spam—this makes success rates much lower.
Whaling social engineering is much more sophisticated than phishing and is designed to get the attention of its targets, bypass security controls, or access sensitive data environments. Whaling emails typically use very specific language that attempts to mimic business relationships. And, since this type of language is not easily generated by a bot, they are often written personally by cybercriminals themselves. This is why whaling attack messages tend to read much more convincingly and are thus much harder to differentiate from phishing attacks by recipients.
3 Examples Of Whaling
Whaling attacks hone in on subject matter specific to their target’s business practices or interests. As such, there are fewer broad examples than there are of basic phishing attacks.
However, as executive phishing becomes more common, the attack vectors used by perpetrators can be easily identified based on these three examples of whaling:
Compromising Corporate Email Address
One of the most effective ways whaling works is by compromising a corporate email address.
All it takes is a perpetrator creating an email address with a domain that looks similar to the one used by your organization. Once the email address is created, the cybercriminal can then send emails to personnel within the organization claiming to be someone in a leadership position.
By mimicking business language between employees, cybercriminals may convince even high-ranking staff to divulge sensitive information or provide access to systems or networks.
A recent scandal in which $100 million was stolen from Facebook and Google points to the severity of invoice fraud orchestrated via whaling emails. In this case, the perpetrators created fake email accounts and sent invoices to employees at Facebook and Google, who then paid out over $100 million, thinking the invoices and contracts were real. The whaling component in this case had less to do with the employees’ stature, more their specific access and capabilities.
Impersonation typically involves a cybercriminal hacking the email account of a high-ranking member of an organization and sending emails to other high-ranking employees (especially those with privileged security access). In this sense, it leverages multiple whaling attacks.
For example, an unsuspecting head of finance might divulge sensitive details in response to an email from the CEO, especially if the email is worded to mimic their business relationship. This attack may be more successful if the perpetrator has had sufficient time to study the business relationships and subtleties in communication between employees before deploying the attack.
Prevent Whaling Cyber Attacks
There are many ways to prevent whaling cyber attacks, often mirroring defenses against other types of social engineering. Ultimately, the most effective methods rely on increasing security awareness, strengthening access controls, and leveraging industry-standard cybersecurity defenses to achieve a robust security posture.
Security Awareness Training
Before implementing robust tools to mitigate whaling cyber attacks, the first defense your organization must optimize is security awareness. But what is whaling cyber awareness?
It means developing security awareness for whaling and other social engineering threats so that your employees are empowered to identify these threats before they become full-blown attacks.
Security awareness training is an ongoing process, meaning employees across the organization will learn how to identify and mitigate sophisticated threats as the cybersecurity community learns about them. That includes regular, frequent training for high-ranking executives.
As more organizations rely on multiple applications to conduct business, there are more gaps in access control management, especially when logging on to different devices on both secured and unsecured networks. Implementing tools like multi-factor authentication (MFA) will help prevent whaling attacks. MFA works by ensuring that any individual requesting access must provide an additional factor beyond a password, like a biometric scan or biographical detail.
Beyond MFA, it is critical for designated administrators to manage access privileges in such a way that only verified individuals (i.e., executives) can gain access to privileged accounts.
Social Media Education
Security awareness training should also focus on educating users on best practices for handling social media interactions. Cybercriminals are increasingly targeting users on popular sites like LinkedIn, where spam filtering technologies may not be as active as with emails.
Social media education should be optimized by developing a curriculum that models whaling scenarios within the context of real-world social media interactions, providing high-ranking employees with real-world situations from which they can develop security awareness.
Even with robust access control tools, you still need anti-phishing solutions to broaden your safeguards against whaling and other social engineering threats. Anti-phishing tools include email filters, proactive web filters, anti-malware, and phishing detectors that work hand-in-hand with security policies to ensure that your organization is safe from phishing attacks.
Email Scanning & Filtering Technology
Security awareness training also works in tandem with email scanning and filtering technology.
Even when your employees are sufficiently trained to identify phishing threats, it is possible for a tired or unsuspecting employee to click on a malicious link in a phishing email. Deploying robust email scanners and filters into native email applications will help proactively identify phishing threats and reduce the number of potential whaling emails your employees are exposed to.
Furthermore, the intelligence gathered from email scanning and filtering technology can be used to train employees on best practices for identifying phishing threats.
How RSI Security Can Help You Prevent Whaling Cyber Attacks
Regardless of your organization’s size, working with an experienced cybersecurity specialist like RSI Security will help you mitigate whaling and other social engineering threats. Our security program advisory services will help you navigate today’s complex IT landscape, ensuring your infrastructure remains secure and compliant with industry and governmental standards.
Even as cybersecurity threats evolve, you will be more confident in the robust defenses provided by your security controls and the framework in which these controls function.
RSI Security’s training programs will equip you with the tools necessary to effectively defend against social engineering threats in the short and long term. Contact us today to learn more!