The Big Fish in the Cyber Sea: How to prevent the Sneakiest Phishing Attacks


In the vast ocean of cyberspace, phishing attacks have emerged as one of the most prevalent and dangerous threats. While many people are familiar with traditional phishing emails, there is a more sophisticated variant known as whaling attacks. Whaling attacks specifically target high-profile individuals, such as CEOs and top executives, seeking to steal sensitive information or gain unauthorized access to corporate systems. 

Let us explore whaling attacks in detail, and provide you with tips to safeguard against these sneaky cyber threats.

Define Whaling attack

Whaling attacks, also known as CEO fraud or spear phishing, are highly targeted phishing attacks that focus on high-level individuals within organizations. 

Cybercriminals employ social engineering techniques to craft very convincing e-mails that seem to be from a reliable source, such as your manager, business partner, or even a company’s CEO. The goal is to trick the recipient into disclosing sensitive information, performing unauthorized actions, or transferring funds to fraudulent accounts.

Impact of Whaling Attack in real-life

FACC whaling attack

We have seen the 2015 whaling attack incident, which is still vivid in our minds. The attacker requested $61 million to be directed to the criminal’s bank by hacking into FACC’s financial bureau. A fake email from the organization’s CEO Walter Stephan contained that request. Attacks like these aim to imitate the CEO’s writing voice in order to convey a convincing narrative.

Seagate whaling scam

A well-known data storage corporation, Seagate, stated that the W-2 tax form data of thousands of present and past employees headquartered in the United States was exposed as a result of a phishing scam in a 2015 incident that came to news. The breach happened when an employee unintentionally provided the 2015 tax information to an unauthorised party after mistaking a phishing email for a real internal request. 

In addition to conveying sincere remorse and extending its sincere apologies to anyone impacted, Seagate quickly reported the situation to the IRS and federal law enforcement organisations. Despite the fact that there is currently no proof of data exploitation, prudence and awareness are suggested while investigations advance.

FBI whaling scam

The FBI subpoenaed approximately 20,000 CEOs in the aftermath of the first known whaling strikes in 2008, which were reported. Around 2,000 individuals clicked on the fraudulent link believing it would download a safe browser add-on, but what it actually did was install a keylogger on their computers that logged into their accounts.

Levitas Capital whaling attack

A huge whaling attack was carried out through a fraudulent Zoom link resulting in the failure of the Australian investment firm Levitas Capital with an $8 million hit. The business closed its doors despite recovering nearly all the lost funds owing to adverse publicity.

What is the difference between whaling attacks, Phishing and BEC attack?

While whaling attacks haven’t made the press as often as other cyberattacks, those few occurrences have made the targets of such attacks quake in their boots. The BEC or business email compromise attack and other examples of phishing attacks, which are the other two categories of cyberattacks, are somewhat similar to the whaling attack. Although each of these attacks has unique traits and goals, they all have certain things in common and are related to one another in the larger scheme of social engineering threats. The three potentially hazardous cyberattacks are summarised below:

Type of attackBEC AttacksWhaling AttacksPhishing Attacks
Targetted IndividualsEmployees responsible for financial transactions, executives High-profile individuals (executives, officials) Financial loss, the potential for financial fraud¬†
Level of personalizationModerate to high personalization Highly personalized and tailored Often less personalized and more generic 
Attack TechniquesEmail spoofing, social engineering, impersonation Email spoofing, advanced social engineering  Email spoofing, deceptive tactics 
ObjectivesFraudulent wire transfers, payment diversion, unauthorised fund transfers, and invoice scams.Access to sensitive information, systemsStealing credentials, personal data, financial info
Financial ImpactSignificant financial losses for organizationsPotential for substantial financial lossesFinancial loss, potential for financial fraud 
Reputational ImpactDamage to reputation, loss of customer trustDamage to reputation, loss of trustPotential damage to reputation, loss of trust 
Scale of AttacksTarget specific organisations or individuals.Primarily targets high-profile individuals.Can target individuals or a broad user base.
ExamplesFraudulent request for a wire transfer using the CEO’s compromised email account.Targeting top executives with personalised emails, requesting sensitive information.Targeting top executives with personalised emails, and requesting sensitive information.

Preventive measures

Whaling attacks, which target high-profile individuals within organizations, often exploit human errors or mistakes to gain unauthorized access or sensitive information. To mitigate the risks associated with Whaling attacks and build a robust defence against them, organizations can implement several preventive measures, including the establishment of a human firewall. Here are some key preventive measures:

  1. Education and Training: Provide comprehensive cybersecurity awareness and training programs to employees, particularly those in high-profile positions or with access to sensitive information. This training should focus on recognizing and reporting phishing attempts, social engineering techniques, and the specific characteristics of Whaling attacks.
  2. Phishing Simulation Exercises: Conduct regular phishing simulation exercises to assess employees’ ability to identify and respond to phishing emails or Whaling attempts. These exercises can help raise awareness, reinforce training, and identify areas that require additional education or improvement.
  3. Multifactor Authentication (MFA): Implement MFA across all systems and applications. MFA adds an additional shield of security by requiring users to provide multiple factors, like a password and a unique code sent to their mobile device, to access critical accounts or sensitive information.
  4. Email Security Measures: Deploy advanced email security solutions that can detect and block phishing emails, malicious attachments, and spoofed email addresses. These solutions employ artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to identify suspicious patterns and protect against whaling attacks.
  5. Robust Password Policies: Enforce strong password policies that require employees to use complex passwords and periodically change them. Encourage the use of password managers to securely store and manage passwords.
  6. Verify Requests Independently: Encourage employees to independently verify requests for sensitive information or financial transactions. This can be done through a separate communication channel, such as a phone call or an in-person conversation, with the person making the request.
  7. Implement Authorization Controls: Establish strict authorization controls for financial transactions and access to sensitive information. This includes the implementation of approval workflows, dual or multi-person authorization for financial transfers, and role-based access controls to limit access to critical systems or data.
  8. Regular Security Updates and Patches: Keep software, applications, and operating systems up to date with the latest security patches and updates. Vulnerabilities in software can be exploited by attackers, so regular updates are crucial to ensure a secure computing environment.
  9. Incident Response Plan: Develop and regularly test an incident response plan that outlines the steps to be taken in case of a Whaling cybersecurity attack or any other incident. This plan should include clear communication channels, responsibilities, and procedures to minimize the impact of an attack and facilitate a swift response.

Final thoughts

It is essential to remain vigilant against the cunningest phishing attacks as we travel the perilous seas of cyberspace. We may strengthen our defences and safeguard ourselves and our company by becoming familiar with the subtleties of whaling attacks. The key to defeating these dangers is creating a human firewall within our organisations through improved security mechanisms, education, and training.

Remember, we are not alone in this battle. To fortify your cyber defences further, request a demo!