Whaling Phishing: The Definitive Defense Guide

All the know-how you need to protect your organization from this growing threat - how whaling works, how to spot attacks and the best practices you can use to strengthen your defences.

Post hero image

Table of contents

DID YOU KNOW? Whaling phishing attacks are costing enterprises around $1.8 billion each year.

Executives report receiving a whaling attack every 24 days...

And 59% say they’ve actually fallen victim to one of these attacks.

Below, we'll cover everything you need to know to protect your organization from this growing threat - how whaling works, how to spot attacks and the best practices you can use to strengthen your defences.

What is whaling phishing?

📚 Quick definition: Whaling phishing targets high-level executives or individuals with significant authority within an organization. Cybercriminals impersonate executives or trusted contacts to deceive employees into performing actions such as wire transfers, divulging sensitive information, or initiating fraudulent transactions.

Unlike your typical phishing attacks that cast a fairly wide net, whaling attacks are highly targeted and meticulously crafted - usually targeting CEOs, CFOs, or other senior executives.

Whaling is actually a type of spear phishing - a highly targeted form of phishing.

Spear phishing becomes a whaling attack when C-suite executives and senior managers are targeted.

Attackers often use sophisticated social engineering tactics and extensive reconnaissance to creates convincing, personalized messages, making whaling attacks particularly tricky to detect.

Whaling phishing example
Source: ResearchGate

Whaling attacks are on the rise...

Cybercriminals are continuously adapting their tactics to exploit human psychology.

And over the past few years, whaling attacks have grown steadily more prevalent.

Understanding whaling phishing: here's what you need to know

Types of whale phishing attacks

Email spoofing

Threat actors will fake the email address of a trusted source, such as a company executive or business partner.

By impersonating someone with authority or influence, they increase their likelihood of tricking the victim into complying with their request.

Business email compromise (BEC)

BEC attacks compromise legitimate business email accounts to carry out cyber attacks.

Attackers will gain access to an executive's email account and use it to send messages to other employees (or suppliers, customers etc), asking them to transfer funds or disclose sensitive information.

Vendor email compromise (VEC)

VEC attacks are similar to BEC attacks, expect its vendors or suppliers who are impersonated.

Attackers will send fraudulent invoices or payment change requests to companies to redirect payments to their own accounts.

Invoice fraud

In this type of whaling phishing attack, a trusted vendor or supplier is impersonated to send fake invoices to the targeted organization.

The invoices will look legitimate and include instructions for payment to fraudulent bank accounts controlled by the attackers.

Credential theft

Attackers will use phishing emails or other social engineering techniques to get high-profile targets to give away their login credentials or other sensitive information.

Payroll fraud

Once they have access to senior executive's or high-level employee's email credentials, attackers will ask the payroll or finance department to change to direct-deposit information. They'll then request their paycheque be send to a fraudulent  account.

Malware and ransomware attacks

Whaling attacks can sometimes involve malware or ransomware - which attackers distribute via email attachments or links.

What are attackers trying to achieve?

  • Financial gain: Attackers may attempt to trick executives or finance departments  into authorizing fraudulent wire transfers, diverting funds to accounts controlled by the attackers.
  • Data theft: Whaling phishing may also be used to steal sensitive data, such as intellectual property, financial records, or customer information.
  • Business disruption: Some whaling attacks aim to disrupt business operations by spreading malware or ransomware within the organization's network.
  • Identity theft: Whaling may involve identity theft, where attackers impersonate high-profile individuals within the organization to gain unauthorized access to systems or resources.
  • Reputation damage: Whaling phishing attacks can also result in reputational damage for the targeted organization, particularly if sensitive information or embarrassing communications are leaked as a result of the attack

Who do whaling attacks usually target?

Whaling attacks primarily target individuals with high levels of authority, access to sensitive information, or control over financial transactions.

Here are some of the personas who tend to be the target of whaling attacks...

Job role Reason for targeting
CEO As the highest-ranking executives in an organization, CEOs are often targeted due to their broad authority and access to sensitive company information.
CFO CFOs have access to financial data, including bank accounts and budgetary information, making them attractive targets for whaling attacks seeking financial gain.
CIOs/CTOs CIOs and CTOs are responsible for overseeing the organization's technology infrastructure and data management, making them valuable targets for cybercriminals seeking access to sensitive data or network resources.
Board Members Board members often have access to confidential strategic plans, financial reports, and other sensitive information, making them desirable targets for attackers looking to gain insight into the organization's operations.
Senior Managers and Department Heads Senior managers and department heads may have access to valuable business information, customer data, or intellectual property, making them attractive targets for attackers seeking to exploit their authority or influence.
HR Managers HR managers may be targeted for access to employee records, payroll systems, or other sensitive HR-related information, which can be used for identity theft or financial fraud.
Legal Counsel Legal counsel may have access to privileged legal documents, contracts, or other sensitive legal information, making them potential targets for attackers seeking to gain insight into legal proceedings or sensitive negotiations.

Real-life examples of whaling attacks

Twitter (2020)

Twitter suffered a high-profile whaling attack where cybercriminals targeted employees with access to internal systems and tools.

The attackers posed as company executives, manipulating employees into providing credentials.

They managed to get access to high-profile accounts (including those of Elon Musk, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden).

💰 Cost: Attackers used these compromised accounts to perpetrate a cryptocurrency scam, resulting in approximately $120,000 in financial losses and reputational damage to Twitter.

Natura & Co (2021)

Brazilian cosmetics company Natura & Co fell victim to a whaling phishing attack that targeted their finance department.

Cybercriminals impersonated a high-ranking executive and sent fraudulent emails instructing employees to transfer $14.6 million to a Hong Kong bank account.

💰 Cost: While the incident is still under investigation, the potential financial losses could amount to millions of dollars.

Red Bee Media (2019)

Red Bee Media, a global media services company, experienced an attack that targeted the company's finance department.

Cybercriminals impersonated the CEO in emails to employees, instructing them to transfer £1 million to a fraudulent bank account.

💰 Cost: The incident resulted in approximately £700,000 in financial losses for the company.

How do whaling attacks actually work?

Here's how a whaling phishing attack will generally unfold...

Stage 1: Research and reconnaissance

Cybercriminals will research your organization and the employees they're looking to target.

They gather information from various sources, like social media profiles, your company website, press releases, and publicly available databases.

This information will be used to craft spear phishing attacks (a highly personalised type of phishing aimed at specific individuals).

Stage 2: Email spoofing

The attackers then use email spoofing to impersonate high-ranking executives, such as your CEO, CFO, or other senior leaders.

The aim here is to trick employees into believing that the emails are legitimate and coming from trusted sources.

Stage 3: Social engineering tactics

Whaling phishing often involves social engineering tactics, which are used to manipulate targeted employees into taking specific actions.

Attackers will leverage psychological manipulation techniques to exploit human vulnerabilities and bypass your organization's security defenses.

Stage 4: Creating a sense of urgency

Phishing emails sent as part of a whaling attack typically try to create urgency and authority.

Recipients  will usually be asked to act quickly with urgent language and/or a time-sensitive request.

Stage 5: Fraudulent requests

Once attackers gain the trust of the targeted individuals, they'll make fraudulent requests for financial transactions using falsified invoices, contracts, or other documents to lend credibility to their requests.

In some cases, the attackers may also request sensitive information, such as employee payroll data or customer credentials.

Stage 6: Compromise and exploitation

Successful whaling attacks can result in financial losses, data breaches, reputational damage...

Compromised funds may be transferred to offshore bank accounts controlled by the attackers, making them difficult to recover.

Sensitive information obtained through these attacks can also be exploited for further criminal activities, such as identity theft, fraud, or extortion.

Whaling attacks are evolving

Whaling phishing attacks are evolving in sophistication...

Cybercriminals are continuously refining their tactics and techniques to bypass traditional security defenses.

Below area few of the ways in which attacks are changing...

Advanced social engineering

Attackers are getting better at crafting highly convincing phishing emails that mimic the writing style, tone, and urgency typically associated with executive communications.

These emails now contain personalized information so that they look legitimate.

Email spoofing techniques

Malicious emails will often come from convincing replicas of legitimate email domains.

Threat actors will manipulate sender addresses to closely resemble those of high-ranking executives so that they can fly under the radar of email authentication protocols.

Example of spoofed message
Source: University College London

Targeted reconnaissance

Instead of generalised, mass-email attacks, cybercriminals are now extensively researching organizations and individuals to get information about their roles, responsibilities, relationships, and communication patterns.

AI technology

To enhance the effectiveness and sophistication of their whaling attacks, cybercriminals are increasingly using AI to craft their attacks.

AI-powered tools can generate highly convincing email templates, mimic the writing style and communication patterns of targeted individuals, and dynamically adjust message content based on recipient behavior or contextual cues.

Compromising real accounts

Fake email accounts can be spotted fairly easily...

So attackers will often compromise the accounts of colleagues to make their whaling attempts harder to detect.

How to spot a whaling attack

Whaling phishing can be hard to detect - but there are a few common signs to look out for.

Requests from high-ranking employees: Whaling attacks typically target personas with access to sensitive information or financial resources. Be suspicious of emails or communications that request urgent action or involve unusual requests from executives.

Urgency and pressure: Whaling emails often create a sense of urgency or pressure. Watch out for emails that demand immediate wire transfers, confidential information disclosure, or sensitive data access without proper verification or approval channels.

Phishing indicators: Whaling emails may exhibit common phishing red flags, such as spelling and grammatical errors, generic greetings, or unusual formatting.

Request for confidential information: Employees should always be skeptical when asked to provide sensitive information, such as login credentials, financial data, or personal details, via email.

Unusual requests or topics: A whaling attempt may give itself away by deviating from typical communication patterns or business processes. Whaling emails may contain unusual requests, unexpected topics, or unfamiliar terminology that does not align with the recipient's role or responsibilities.

A quick process employees can use to review suspicious emails

  1. Verify the sender: Check the sender's email address carefully for any misspellings or irregularities. Are there variations in domain names or slight changes in the sender's name?
  2. Asses urgency: Pay attention to the tone and urgency of the email. Be skeptical of emails that demand urgent action.
  3. Review content: Read the email content carefully for any unusual requests, unfamiliar topics, or unexpected attachments. Does the email deviate from typical communication patterns?
  4. Verify authenticity: If unsure about the legitimacy of an email, verify the authenticity of the sender and the request through alternative communication channels.
  5. Avoid clicking links or downloading attachments: Clicking on links or downloading attachments in suspicious emails is generally not a good idea! Avoid interacting with unsolicited emails that contain unfamiliar links or attachments.
  6. Report suspicious emails: Any emails that raise suspicion should be reported to the IT or security team immediately.

Best practices for preventing whaling phishing 🐋

Enforce strict access controls

Implement strict access controls and user permissions to restrict access to sensitive data and systems.

Limit the number of employees who have access to high-value assets and ensure that access is granted on a need-to-know basis.

Update your organization's software regularly

Employees should update their devices and software regularly to make sure they have the latest security patches - these updates often contain security tweaks in-line with new threats and vulnerabilities.

Enable multi-factor authentication

Employees should ideally be required to use MFA for accessing corporate accounts and systems - especially those in high-risk roles.

Implement email encryption

Implementing an email encryption solution will help protect sensitive email communications and confidential information from unauthorized access or interception.

You'll be able to encrypt email messages containing sensitive data like financial information, intellectual property, or personally identifiable information (PII), both in transit and at rest.

Ask employees to make their social media profiles private

If employees' LinkedIn and Facebook profiles are visible to friends only, this'll make it harder for threat actors to gather any information that can be used in a whaling attack.

Lock down your data protection policies

You'll need to create concrete policies for handling, sharing, and sending sensitive data.

These policies should lay out who can access what data - and the processes for doing so.

Policies usually cover things like avoiding sending files to personal email addresses and using a mobile VPN when accessing sensitive data on public Wi-Fi networks.

Invest in employee security training

Humans are the single biggest risk to your organization's security...

95% of data breaches are due to human error.

This is why its essential to train employees in best practices.

An effective training solution will make sure employees are clued up on the latest phishing threats and know exactly how to identify and report them.

Your training should include regular phishing simulation exercises to assess employees' susceptibility to whaling attacks and provide targeted security awareness training.

Use realistic phishing scenarios that mimic common whaling tactics to give employees a feel for what these attacks look like in the wild (we'll be covering the best possible approach to training below👇).

Are there any tools you can implement to defend against whaling attacks?

Email security gateways (ESGs): Email security gateways analyze incoming and outgoing email traffic for signs of malicious activity. These gateways use a combination of spam filters, antivirus scanners, and behavioral analysis to detect and block whaling phishing emails.

💡 Slight variations can be hard to pick up if you're not looking out for them. But one simple way to reduce the risk of whaling phishing is to flag any emails that come from outside of your organization's network.

Anti-phishing solutions: Anti-phishing solutions are specifically designed to identify and block phishing attempts, including whaling attacks. These solutions use algorithms and threat intelligence feeds to analyze email content, sender reputation, and domain authenticity.

Email authentication protocols: Implementing email authentication protocols such as SPF (Sender Policy Framework), DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail), and DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance) can help verify the authenticity of email senders and prevent email spoofing or impersonation.

AI-Powered threat detection: Threat detection solutions can analyze email behavior, identify patterns indicative of whaling attacks, and automatically quarantine suspicious emails to prevent potential breaches.

Endpoint security solutions: Endpoint security solutions, such as endpoint detection and response (EDR) platforms and next-generation antivirus (NGAV) software monitor endpoint activity, detect signs of malicious behavior, and automatically block emails to prevent data breaches.

Incident response and forensic tools: In the event of a whaling attack, incident response and forensic tools can help your security team investigate the incident, identify the root cause, and mitigate the impact effectively. These tools enable you to gather evidence, analyze email headers, and trace the origin of malicious emails to identify and neutralize threats.

An employee thinks they've fallen victim to a whaling attack: what now?

If an employee does happen to click on a link they believe is malicious, there are a few steps they can take to report the threat and shore up defenses.

Below is a rough template for action - your specific process will obviously depend on your organization's existing protocols.

  1. Do not respond: Instruct employees not to respond to the suspicious email or provide any sensitive information requested in the message. Avoid clicking on any links or downloading attachments contained in the email.
  2. Report the incident: Encourage employees to report the suspected whaling attack to the organization's IT or security team immediately.
  3. Document details: Advise employees to document details of the suspicious email, including the sender's email address, subject line, and any other relevant information.
  4. Quarantine the email: Instruct employees to move the suspicious email to their email application's spam or junk folder, or quarantine it using email filtering tools if available.
  5. Change passwords: As a precautionary measure, recommend that employees change their passwords for email and other sensitive accounts if they believe their credentials may have been compromised.
  6. Monitor Accounts: Encourage employees to monitor their email accounts and other online accounts for any unauthorized activity or signs of compromise.

Reduce human cyber risk with Hoxhunt

Hoxhunt provides individualized phishing training, automated security awareness training and advanced behavior change - all in one human risk management platform.

Traditional security awareness training isn't effective at changing employees behavior.

So, we built Hoxhunt to maximize outcomes using positive behaviour reinforcement, personalized learning paths and fun, engaging micro-trainings.

  • Change employees’ behavior with a solution that automatically optimizes training to their location, role and skill level.
  • Stay ahead of the latest threats with realistic phishing simulations (including whaling attacks).
  • Make training genuinely enjoyable and rewarding with instant gratification, leaderboards and achievements.
  • Monitor and report on performance with powerful drill down and benchmarking capabilities.
Hoxhunt phishing training dashboard

Whaling phishing FAQ

What is whaling phishing?

Whaling phishing is a type of phishing attack that specifically targets high-ranking individuals or executives within an organization, such as CEOs, CFOs, or other senior management personnel.

How does whaling phishing differ from standard phishing attacks?

While standard phishing attacks cast a wide net and target a broad audience with generic phishing emails, whaling phishing attacks are highly targeted and tailored to deceive specific individuals in key positions of authority or access within an organization.

What are the telltale signs of a whaling phishing attack?

Whaling phishing attacks often involve urgent requests for sensitive information or actions that require quick action, such as wire transfers or access to privileged accounts. They may also use sophisticated social engineering tactics, such as impersonating trusted contacts or mimicking official communications from the company.

What are some common tactics used in whaling phishing attacks?

Whaling phishing attacks often involve the use of fraudulent emails that appear to come from legitimate sources, such as company executives or business partners. These emails may contain malicious attachments, requests for sensitive information, or instructions for unauthorized actions, such as initiating wire transfers.

How can organizations protect against whaling phishing attacks?

Implementing multi-step verification processes, training employees to recognize and report suspicious emails, deploying anti-phishing software, and enforcing strict security policies can help mitigate the risk of whaling phishing attacks. Additionally, conducting simulated whaling attacks can raise awareness and test the effectiveness of security measures.

Get more cybersecurity insights like this