The shift to remote or hybrid work environments has necessitated a much greater security focus on digital safety and secure communications. In addition to ensuring that your employee's devices are protected and your organization's network information is secure when accessed from remote locations, the threat of employees falling victim to phishing or whaling attacks may be more likely when a majority of a company’s employees work remotely.
Whaling attacks are often thought of in the context of email security - where a threat actor is targeting an organization with a phishing email campaign to gain access to their high profile people. However, what most employees don’t realize is that before a whaling or phishing email ever reaches their inbox, there are foundational steps that must be taken, most notably, the creation of a lookalike or otherwise fraudulent domain. Since all email addresses require a root domain, addressing impersonating domains provides prevention measures before a whaling attack can even take place. There are a host of proactive domain monitoring techniques that organizations can leverage to safeguard their people and their sensitive information from falling victim to a phishing scheme.
This article will identify the warning signs that the communication you have received claiming to be from a senior part of your organization may be part of a whaling attack and explain how you can protect your organization's data from this type of breach. It will also discuss some of the specific ways that domain monitoring tools can help make your organization’s safety posture more proactive and provide early warning signals that help keep your executive communications sufficiently protected.
Techniques Used In Whaling Attacks
The basic concept of a whaling attack involves communicating with a high-level employee (a "whale") of an organization while pretending to have the authority to demand either payment or sensitive information. While the attack may be complex in its setup, the technical knowledge necessary to initiate this attack is minimal.
While working remotely, your employees are particularly vulnerable to this type of attack because they may be accustomed to receiving the majority of their work requests through digital means, without the need for face-to-face communication with a senior executive. If your company uses digital platforms such as email or cloud-based communication services, they may receive an outreach that uses some of these tactics designed to intimidate or trick them.
This tactic refers to the methods of manipulation used by a threat agent to convince the target that they need to take a certain action. This could include using fear of punishment or negative consequences, the promise of praise or reward, or an appeal that simply looks official and unassuming.
Social engineering is a powerful part of a whaling attack, as these attacks prey on the idea that an employee or a low-level executive may feel they don't have the authority to question a request that comes from a high-level executive. They may feel protected from traditional phishing scams, not recognizing that the communications they receive may be even more dangerous than one that appears to come from outside of their organization.
Email Spoofing And Impersonation
When a cybercriminal launches a whaling attack using an email that appears to come from a senior executive within the organization that their target works for, they are spoofing. This type of impersonation can be effective if the threat agent has spent time copying the company logo and researching details about a specific target.
Some cybercriminals may spend additional time combing through an organization's social media accounts and contacts in order to gain information that can make their spoofed email look even more legitimate, such as including a personal detail about the target's interactions with the executive or company.
Business Email Compromise (BEC) Schemes
Business email compromise (BEC) schemes encompass all scams that use email to send a request to an employee that appears to be from a legitimate source. Remote workers may be accustomed to receiving many emails daily, and therefore may not give an email that appears similar (or even identical) to a standard work communication a second thought before completing the requested task.
Whaling Attacks Leveraging Malware
If a spoofed email looks sufficiently legitimate, the target may open it on a company computer without first examining the content. Opening the email or clicking on any links in the email may allow malware to infect the device. This malware may be able to carry out a secondary attack on the organization's data or steal valuable assets.
Whaling Vs Phishing: What's The Difference?
Whaling and traditional phishing attacks both use social engineering tactics to try to convince an employee to complete a requested action. This could include a request for a wire transfer of company assets, login information for a company account, or any other request for sensitive information.
The key differences between a whaling attack and a traditional phishing attack exist in the complexity of the request. Traditional phishing attacks are usually generic requests that could be sent to anyone in a company seeking personal information about the target. This information can then be used by the threat actor to acquire some type of monetary gain or to create an account that allows the cybercriminal access to information they are not authorized to have. These attacks are not targeted; they are generally non-specific so that they can be sent to many potential vectors in the hopes that at least one of them will present an opportunity to the threat agent for manipulation.
A whaling attack is a direct and targeted attack, more closely related to a spear phishing attack. Both whaling attacks and spear phishing attacks use any accessible personal information about the target they can acquire to make more specific and legitimate-looking requests. However, while a spear phishing attack can target any specific person in an organization, a whaling attack will focus on targets that have some authority within the organization. This could include low or high-level executives or persons who have the ability to unilaterally sign off on expenditures or wire transfers of company assets.Using tailored cybersecurity measures to combat these various types of attacks is important because the level of complexity and pervasiveness can make a single protective measure ineffective. For traditional phishing attacks, cybersecurity measures such as email verification and monitoring incoming email traffic may be sufficient. However, more advanced whaling techniques require checks and balances to ensure that your organization's data stays protected.
How To Protect Your Organization Against Whaling Attacks
As whaling attacks become more sophisticated, simply educating your organization's potential targets about the threat will not always be sufficient. It is often far more effective to take a proactive approach that raises your security team’s level of awareness about a potential whaling attack on the horizon so that your people are on high alert before a whaling email enters their inbox.
Consider taking the following measures to improve your organization’s remote work cybersecurity:
Leverage Domain Monitoring Tools
Domain Monitoring tools like those provided by ZeroFox are your first and best line of defense against domain-based cyber attacks like whaling.
These tools leverage the power of AI to monitor every domain name and close variant that threat actors could potentially leverage to launch a domain spoofing attack against your organization. In order to launch a phishing or whaling attack from a spoofed domain, cyber attackers must first acquire a mail exchange (MX) record allowing emails to be sent and received from that domain. This is the first step in creating a false sender address that can be used to trick or manipulate the recipient into believing the email was sent by a trusted colleague and not a malicious actor.
Domain monitoring tools allow ZeroFox’s analysts to flag variant domains where an activated mail exchange record suddenly appears. This is a strong indicator that cyber attackers may be planning to launch an attack, and is in fact often the precursor to a whaling, phishing or spear phishing attack.
Domain monitoring offers continuous protection because your organization’s security team will know about potential attacks ahead of time, allowing them to notify potential targets to closely scrutinize their inbox. Domain monitoring tools are the best way to prevent damaging data leaks that are often a result of whaling attacks.
Implement Comprehensive Security Measures
Use comprehensive security measures regardless of the location where your employees are logging into work. Ensure that all devices used to access your company accounts are secure and use appropriate cyber safety measures. Create protective firewalls and protected defense in depth around your organization's platforms.
Use Two-Factor Authentication And Secure Communication Channels
Even among employees and executives working at the highest levels of your company, encourage all work-related communication to run through verified channels that require two-factor authentication for every involved person. This can protect your communication pathways from being compromised by someone impersonating a high-level executive, and make employees accessing your organization's network from remote locations more secure.
Initiate Employee Training And Awareness Programs
Especially in a remote work environment, regularly enact company training and awareness programs. Do not exclude high-level executives, as they are the most likely targets of whaling attacks, and encourage every employee to feel comfortable double-checking the source of any request they receive.
Verification Of Executive-Level Requests
Enacting a system of automatically verifying all executive-level requests can ensure that this attack vector becomes more difficult to infiltrate.
Incident Response Policies And Procedures
Having both automated incident response software and human-initiated policies and procedures in place can protect your organization in the event a breach does occur as a result of a whaling attack or any other type of cyber security attack. When incidents are reported and acknowledged early, better protective measures and further education can protect against more harmful attacks in the future and limit the damage caused to the impacted population.
Executive protection measures should be a vital part of every organization's cybersecurity system because of the unique and powerful threats targeted at employees with executive access to sensitive or confidential information. ZeroFox addresses these specific concerns through an AI-powered executive protection solution that provides maximum security tailored to your business’s goals and industry.
Require Two-Person Sign-Off On All Payments
In order to disincentivize threat actors from targeting your organization with whaling attacks, consider implementing a system where any payments must be signed off on by at least two employees. This ensures that any whaling schemes that are requesting a direct payment must be viewed by at least those two employees, minimizing the chance that an impersonation could be missed.
Shield Your Organization From Whaling Attacks With ZeroFox
Protect your organization's data from whaling attacks and cyber threats using the powerful, AI-driven domain monitoring solutions offered by ZeroFox. ZeroFox’s external cybersecurity solutions are backed by extensive knowledge about evolving threats across every industry, as well as the vulnerabilities that attackers will seek to exploit.
With ZeroFox, your organization can recognize and disrupt potential threats from spoofed domains before they cause irreparable damage to your business’s reputation and bottom line. Request a demo today to learn more about how ZeroFox can mitigate the risk your organization faces from whaling attacks and other cyber security threats.