One of the largest online security threats to individuals and businesses today doesn’t come from new sophisticated malware tools, but rather from distinctly low-tech phishing and whaling campaigns. A recent survey of IT experts from the US, UK, South Africa and Australia exposed the reality that cyber threats are increasing both in volume and size, and that up to 55% of organisations have seen a rise in whaling email attacks over the last three months of 2015. What is the difference between whaling and phishing? Realistically, “whaling” is just another term for “phishing”, the difference between the two lies in the size of the fish, and thus “whaling” refers to bigger, more lucrative targets.
Whaling involves targeting fewer individuals but the attacks are more specific. Whereas phishing is based on volume, whaling is the opposite and targets a much smaller audience, which is usually an organisation’s “big phish”. These are usually high-value individuals whose credentials or access to data, if compromised, could endanger the entire business; which is why these kind of attacks are also called “Business Email Compromise” attacks. These kinds of threats are harder to detect because they are stealthier and fewer in number than widespread phishing campaigns. Targets of choice for whalers include senior executives and high-level officials in private businesses, as well as those with privileged access to government information.
The anatomy of a whaling attack
Whaling attacks are generally directed at business executives at large organisations and the intention behind these attacks is to trick financial staff into making fraudulent wire transfers to bank accounts controlled by whalers. How do these attackers get it right? Their targeted campaigns typically involve emails that appear to be from the CEO, Chief Financial Officer or other senior executive to an individual within the company who holds the authority to make electronic transfers on behalf of the organisation.
These emails make use of compelling language that conveys a sense of urgency to get the recipient to act as quickly as possible in response to the email. An example of such an attack is where an email comes through, purportedly from the CEO, asking finance staff to rush through a payment to a supplier that the executive cannot handle because they are out of the office.
Attacks from the inside
Research shows that most whaling attacks pretend to be from the CEO (72%), while 36% had seen whaling emails attributed to the CFO, which means that this type of targeted attack relies on a significant amount of prior research into the targeted organisation to allow attackers to identify their target correctly and obtain the most successful result possible. Whalers do their research on corporate databases and make use of social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to trawl for information. It is because whaling emails rely on social engineering to trick their targets into doing something, rather than tricking them to click on a hyperlink or malicious attachment, that whaling emails are harder to detect when compared to phishing emails.
Protecting your company from whaling attacks
From an organisational point of view, such attacks can be approached with the same mindset applied for corporate espionage security, as they are essentially the same. The controls are still along the lines of anti-phishing technology which is linked to email, but because of the targeted nature of the whaling attack, it can be a lot more difficult for technology to pick up, which is why it’s important to add an awareness element to preventive measures taken.
This means educating senior management, key personnel and finance teams about this specific kind of attack and asking them to be more suspicious of requests received through email. While there are technologies that can be used to confirm, for example, the originator’s email, it is incumbent on the recipient to confirm or identify the source of communication before they take action on the email and to this end, finance team procedures will need to be reviewed in order to prevent whaling, specifically how payments to external third parties are authorised.
Furthermore, senior executives need to be careful what kind of contact information is available for them in the public domain. This means that a company should have a policy in place which refers to access control to and disclosure of senior personnel contact information. Realistically, someone may not have an issue giving a contact number for the help desk, but they should have an issue giving a contact number for their senior executives and access controls should be implemented to hinder information gathering tactics.
It is also advisable to make use of various technological measures that simplify the matter. In terms of validating the source of emails, like with phishing, whaling emails can have the source of the email description and the technical structure of the email validated, using targeted threat prevention solutions integrated with email security. Also useful is inbound email stationery that marks and alerts personnel to emails that have come from outside the corporate network. Additionally, domain name registration alerts can be used to notify an organisation when domains are created that closely resemble that corporate’s domain, making it that much harder for a whaler to launch a successful attack from within.
By Simeon Tassev, Director and QSA, Galix Networking