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What Is a Whaling Phishing Attack?

Tristen Cooper

Whaling Phishing Attack

If you have an email or social media account, you’ve likely received phishing messages before. Phishing happens when a cybercriminal poses as a trusted organization or contact in an attempt to steal sensitive information such as passwords, birthdays, bank account information, or even social security numbers.

Many cybercriminals have taken their phishing attacks to the next level with more sophisticated strategies and targeted messages. Whaling attacks have become a particularly popular way to gather valuable information that you wouldn’t be able to get through traditional phishing emails.

Whaling attacks are an advanced form of phishing attack that targets senior-level executives or other employees with valuable high-level credentials. Because whaling emails are highly targeted, they are often harder to spot and prevent than traditional phishing emails. They have also been increasing in frequency in recent years – whaling scams resulted in a whopping $12.5 billion in losses during 2021.

Let’s dive deeper into how whaling attacks work and what you can do to prevent them at your organization.

Key Takeaways

  • Whaling attacks are a type of phishing attack that targets C-suite executives and other high-level employees.
  • These attacks will use social engineering tactics to mimic a potential colleague, client, or organization to trick the executive into sharing sensitive information.
  • These attacks can happen through email, social media, text message, or even with a phone call.
  • Learning how to spot the signs of a whaling attack is the best way for executives to prevent them.

What is Whaling?

Whaling is a type of cyber attack that uses targeted social engineering techniques to steal data from high-level employees within an organization. During these attacks, the cybercriminal poses as a trusted contact to build trust with the target. These attacks typically happen via email, but can also happen via social media, text messages, or even voicemail.

Unlike traditional phishing attacks, which are often sent en masse, whaling attacks are highly targeted. Hackers will research the victim in-depth and customize the message based on what they know about them.

Whaling attacks can target any high-level employee who has access to valuable information, such as financial data, sensitive customer information, or even intellectual property. They often target C-level executives, but any high-ranking individual should learn the signs of whaling and watch out for attacks.

How Does Whaling Work?

Scammers planning a whaling attack will start by researching their target to learn more about their work and what data they have access to. They will use LinkedIn and other digital tools to source this information, and may even look for information about the target’s colleagues as well.

Then, the scammer will find the target’s email, phone number, and other contact information. They will then craft a message impersonating a trusted source, such as a colleague, a potential client, or a business partner, for example. 

They might also pose as the FBI, SEC, or another government authority. To do this, they will create an email account or social media account impersonating this source.

One of the definitive characteristics of any whaling attack is a sense of urgency. The cybercriminal will encourage the target to share personal information or even wire transfer money in a timely manner, often threatening serious financial or personal consequences as a result. 

Whaling attacks will often use the victim’s status or job title to their advantage, threatening legal consequences or reputational damage to the organization.

If this whaling attack is successful, the hacker will then use the information they’ve obtained to further infiltrate your organization to achieve their goals. This can happen in a variety of different ways.

For example, they might infiltrate your customer database to find credit card information or other sensitive data they can sell. If your organization has proprietary intellectual property that no one else has, they might also steal this information to sell or hold for ransom. This is why it’s so important for your organization to have multiple layers of cybersecurity protection.

How Is It Different From Other Types of Phishing?

While whaling is a type of phishing, it differs significantly from other forms of phishing attacks. Whaling is very different from traditional phishing scams in that they are much more targeted and specific.

Traditional phishing scams are often sent out in high volumes to thousands of people, and the messages aren’t customized. This makes them easier to spot and ignore than a whaling attack. These messages are often characterized by poor spelling and grammar, a sense of urgency or fear, or an offer that is too good to be true.

Standard phishing attacks often pose as popular social media platforms, financial platforms, or e-commerce retailers, such as Facebook, PayPal, or Amazon. Whaling attacks, on the other hand, will usually pose as a trusted colleague, client, or other specific contact.

Whaling is often confused with spear phishing attacks, but they are actually very different. Spear phishing is a type of targeted phishing attack that focuses on a specific group of people. However, they do not have to be high-level executives or C-suite employees. Spear phishing might target an entire organization or a specific group of people instead.

Spear phishing is typically done to gain access to passwords and other login information. Whaling usually targets more valuable intellectual property, financial information, or customer data that only executives would have access to.

How to Identify and Prevent a Whaling Scam

Whaling phishing attacks have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, and it’s more important than ever for high-level executives to learn how to spot whaling messages. Having a reliable cybersecurity strategy is also crucial for any organization. This way, even if a whaling attack is successful, there will be additional security measures in place to prevent it from escalating.

How to Spot a Whaling Message

In order to prevent whaling attacks, you first need to learn how to spot them. Hackers will often go to great lengths to make these messages look legitimate. However, there are usually a few tell-tale signs that will help you identify and ignore these messages. These include:

  • Misspelled domain names: One of the biggest signs of a potential whaling attack is an email from a sender with a misspelled domain name. The name of the sender will mimic a colleague or other trusted source, but upon further inspection, the domain name will likely have a word slightly misspelled. Domain names used in phishing attacks often have periods, capital letters, or numbers in unlikely places as well.
  • Overly formal language: Many hackers overestimate the formality of communications with high-value employees. Because of this, many whaling messages will use formal or odd greetings such as “good day” or “hello dear”. If you notice language that is out of the ordinary for a standard email or text message, it might be a sign of a phishing email.
  • Requests for wire transfers: Many whaling attacks have the end goal of receiving a wire transfer from the victim. Executives should always be wary of emails that contain requests for money, even if they appear to come from a legitimate source. If you think the request may be legitimate, confirm with the sender in person or through another secure method of communication. Keep in mind that the scammers may also have access to your phone number and target you with text messages or voicemails.
  • A false sense of urgency: A tell-tale sign of any phishing scam, whaling included, is a false sense of urgency. If you receive a message telling you to act within a specific time period to avoid consequences, there’s a good chance it’s a form of fraud – particularly if the request is already out of the ordinary.
  • Malicious links or attachments: Whaling attacks are less likely than traditional phishing attacks to contain malicious links or attachments. However, it’s still a possibility, so proceed with caution when opening anything directly from your email.

If you don’t already, consider implementing an anti-phishing program across your organization to educate everyone on signs of a phishing or whaling message. Whaling attacks are often successful because CEOs, CFOs, and other senior executives don’t know the signs to watch for. Regular security awareness training goes a long way towards preventing these issues.

How to Prevent Whaling Attacks

Many whaling attacks can be prevented simply by knowing how to identify them and deleting the message. However, there are other steps you can take to help prevent these attacks from happening.

The first step is simply to be careful with the information you put online. Any information you have on social media, such as your birthday, your location, or even your hobbies could be used in a whaling attack. It’s also important to be cautious when sharing your email and other contact information.

There are also steps you can take on an organizational level to filter out some whaling emails. For example, many spam prevention software programs will filter out messages with obvious signs of phishing, and DNS filters can also be very helpful.

Beyond that, there should be organizational safeguards in place to prevent data sharing or money transfers at a high level. All employees, including the CEO, should have to go through a verification process before taking these kinds of action.