In 2022, businesses started transitioning to the digital space en masse. However, this rapid increase in digital traffic has also led to new vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit in different ways. According to Verizon, approximately 25% of all data breaches involve phishing. And then there’s whaling. When you hear the term, your first thought is usually of a boat chasing after a magnificent oceanic behemoth. In the context of cybersecurity, whaling is just as sinister. So, what is whaling in cybersecurity?
How Does a Whaling Attack Work?
We’ve all heard of phishing attacks where unsuspecting individuals are sent harmful URLs via email. A whaling attack is similar. It is a form of phishing that specifically targets high-ranking executives such as CEOs or CFOs.
Attackers try to steal sensitive business information that these targets have access to due to their rank. They may also aim to manipulate the target into making high-value wire transfers to the attacker.
Let’s better understand what is whaling in cybersecurity. Attackers usually send these high-ranking professionals emails that appear to be from a trusted source. These emails often contain URLs that lead to sites that have been specifically created for the attack. These emails and sites are created to look extremely personalized, containing personal information about the target collected from various public sources.
In some cases, attackers gain control of the target’s business email to impersonate them to convince other employees to carry out financial transfers.
Examples of Whaling Attacks
There are several recent examples when it comes to successful whaling attacks. Here are a few.
The CEO of FACC, an Austrian aerospace firm, was the target of a whaling attack that cost the company $58 million. He was fired for allowing the attack to occur.
In 2016, Seagate faced a whaling attack that caused the leakage of sensitive information, including over 10,000 employee records. This incident led to a malpractice lawsuit against the company.
Why are Whale Attacks Successful?
Whaling attacks are extremely difficult to detect. This is due to the number of effort attackers put into making their emails highly personalized in order to gain the target’s trust. Attackers gather information about the target from the public domain like media articles or their social media profiles.
Attackers also use general company data like job titles, names of colleagues, business partners, etc. All of this data is used to erase the doubt in the target’s mind about the phishing email’s legitimacy.
What is the Goal of Whaling Attacks?
While whaling attacks seem to have a clear financial motive, there could be several motivations the attacker may be acting upon. Here are a few that will give us a clearer understanding of what is whaling in cybersecurity.
- Money: Attackers try to trick victims into sending them money through wire transfers. They could also extort them after stealing their data.
- Control: A hacker can try to leverage the target’s credentials to open doors in the organization to meet a larger, more sinister motive.
- Supply Chain Attack: Hackers can disrupt elements of an organization’s supply chain to sabotage its operations.
- Corporate Espionage: Hackers can steal an organization’s sensitive data to sell to its competitors.
- Reputation: Hackers can try to hurt the reputation of their victims through their attacks.
Whaling Attacks Preventative Measures
Whaling prevention requires organizations to take targeted actions to ensure that they can detect these attacks. Here are some of the ways that you can help prevent whaling attacks.
1. Employee Awareness
Every employee needs to help protect the company from phishing. They need to be trained in identifying these attacks.
2. Multi-Step Verification
Every wire transfer or request for sensitive data must undergo multiple levels of verification before being approved.
3. Data Protection Policies
Data security policies must be implemented where emails are monitored for suspicious activity.
How to Recognize a Whaling Attack?
There is a simple acronym to remember the steps to keep in mind to identify a whaling attack. It is, simply, WHALE. Here is what it means:
- Who’s the Sender: Review the email of the sender to look out for suspicious misspellings or discrepancies.
- How is the Subject Line Written: Be doubly cautious when subject lines appeal to your emotions. Whalers can try to strike a feeling of fear or urgency.
- Attachment Inspection: Watch out for suspicious file types. They could be hiding malware. Also, watch out for forms that ask for sensitive information.
- Look at the Content: Don’t trust information just because the content seems to be trustworthy. Scammers can go a long way to mimic authenticity.
- Elect to Confirm the Request: Always try and contact the sender through call or text to double-check their request if the mail seems slightly suspicious.
The Way Ahead for Preventing Whale Attacks
If organizations wish to protect their assets from future attacks, they need to invest in proper cybersecurity education as well as hire talented cybersecurity professionals. The increase in demand for such experts is a trend we’re already seeing today. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has anticipated an increase in the employment of information security analysts by 35% between 2021 and 2031, thus predicting a lucrative job outlook.
Since you were interested in what is whaling in cybersecurity, you may enjoy learning more about the world of cybersecurity and taking advantage of this growing demand. Get ready for potential cybersecurity jobs by taking up one of the top online cybersecurity courses offered by Emeritus. Sign up today!
Written by Tanish Pradhan
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