What is a whaling attack and how to prevent it?

Anton P. | June 1, 2020

A whaling attack is one of the most common cyber threats today. Even though whaling is similar to phishing, the target list is far more exclusive here. It includes high-level executives, and influential people targeted to gain valuable information or financial profit. This attack is also more challenging to identify due to the convincing social engineering methods used. Luckily, there are effective ways to prevent a whaling attack. Here’s how.

What is a whaling attack?

A whaling attack is a phishing technique, which manipulates people into revealing confidential and valuable information. Criminals use a whaling attack to impersonate senior management, such as CEO, CFO, or other high-profile executives. Usually, crooks hand-pick their victims according to their status and access to sensitive data.

With the hope to prove their authority, threat actors use fraudulent emails that appear to be from a trusted source. They apply well-founded social engineering techniques to trick individuals into revealing confidential data, making wire transfers, or trading organizational secrets. One common whaling attack technique is to create a feeling of urgency by implying tremendous consequences and a short time frame. Hence, victims are less likely to double-check their actions.

How does a whaling attack work?

A whaling attack is more difficult to detect than a typical phishing scam. With regular phishing, attackers cast a wide net and hope to trick random people. Here, criminals invest a lot more time and effort to gather information about their targets due to potentially high rewards.

They carefully analyze the company’s social media pages and employee profiles on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn to gather all publicly available information. Also, threat actors can engage with the organization via emails to understand how they structure their letters and signatures. Hence, they find out important details such as job titles and names of colleagues.

With enough information, an attacker impersonates a fellow worker known by the target. Usually, criminals design their emails in the most legitimate way possible, from personal details to fonts. Also, the email can contain actual corporate logos, phone numbers, and other information to make it seem realistic. Even though a whaling attack depends on the extortion of data, attackers may send hyperlinks or attachments to infect victims with malware.

Because a whaling attack is so tricky and challenging to identify, many organizations have become victims in recent years. Reportedly, companies have lost more than $12.5 billion between 2013 and 2018. Famous victims include a social media giant Snapchat, a data storage company Seagate, and an aircraft manufacturer FACC. The latter fell for a deceptive email of a whaling attack that led to a $56 million financial loss.

How to prevent a whaling attack?

  1. Practice and enforce good email hygiene. Question every unsolicited request. Don’t click on suspicious links or attachments – hover over them without clicking to reveal the full URL beforehand. Carefully look at email addresses and sender names. Also, check the email for any grammatical mistakes or other irregularities.
  2. Educate yourself and your team about phishing tactics and how to recognize them.
  3. Establish a verification process. Before making a money transfer or revealing sensitive information, contact the sender to confirm the request’s legitimacy.
  4. Mark external emails. Because attackers imitate someone from within the organization, flagging external emails can notify you that the sender is not who they claim to be.
  5. Implement data protection. Even though the success of a whaling attack depends on human error, using cybersecurity tools is crucial. Firewalls, intrusion detection software, and malware scanning utilities are necessary to detect, analyze, and prevent the threat from causing severe damage. Additionally, VPNs can secure your connection and disrupt the cyber criminals’ plans to collect information about you. As a result, they won’t be able to misuse it for phishing or whaling scams.
Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.


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