Whaling refers to a type of cyberattack that targets high-level executives and individuals with access to sensitive information or financial resources within an organization. This type of cyberattack is also known as “CEO fraud” or “business email compromise.”

This type of attack is more sophisticated than traditional phishing attacks, as it specifically targets individuals with decision-making power within an organization. Whaling attacks use social engineering tactics, such as phishing emails, that are specifically crafted to trick the target into divulging sensitive information or transferring funds to a fraudulent account.


Cybercriminals engaged in whaling attacks use a variety of tactics to trick their targets, such as crafting realistic-looking emails that appear to be from a trusted source, such as a CEO, CFO, or other high-ranking executive. The emails are designed to look legitimate, often including company logos and email signatures, making it difficult for the target to detect the fraud.

Whaling attacks can cause significant financial losses and reputational damage to businesses. According to a recent report by Netwrix, phishing is the most common attack vector, with 73% of respondents suffering this type of cyberattack on-premises and 58% experiencing it in the cloud with an estimated financial damage of $50,000, among other serious consequences.

Therefore, it is essential for organizations put into place comprehensive cybersecurity risk management strategies and provide training to employees on how to identify and avoid these types of attacks.

In this article, we will discuss the various aspects of whaling cybersecurity and provide tips on how to protect your executives and your business from these dangerous attacks.

How Do Whaling Attacks Work?

Whaling attacks typically begin with the attacker gathering information about the target, such as their email address, position within the organization, and the organizational structure. The attacker may also conduct research on the target’s social media accounts to gain insights into their personal life and interests.

Once the attacker has enough information, they will craft a phishing email that appears to be from a trusted source, such as a colleague, supervisor, or client. The email will often contain urgent language, requesting that the target take immediate action, such as transferring funds to a fraudulent account or disclosing sensitive information.

The email will also contain a sense of urgency or fear to prompt the target into taking immediate action, such as suggesting that failure to comply could result in legal or financial consequences. In some cases, the attacker may also use social engineering tactics, such as building a rapport with the target over a series of emails or phone calls.

In some cases, the email may contain a link or attachment that, once clicked, will install malware or ransomware on the recipient’s device, providing the attacker with access to sensitive content or control of the target’s device.

Whaling attacks can be very sophisticated, with attackers conducting extensive research on their targets to create a convincing story or pretext for the attack. They may use publicly available information, such as social media profiles, to gain insight into the target’s personal and professional life, making it easier to craft a convincing message.

What Is the Difference Between Phishing and Whaling?

Phishing and whaling attacks are both forms of social engineering, but there are some key differences between the two. Phishing attacks typically cast a wide net, targeting a large number of individuals in the hope of tricking a few into providing sensitive information or completing a financial transaction. Whaling attacks, on the other hand, are highly targeted and focus on individuals with access to significant financial or sensitive information within an organization, such as high-level executives or CEOs. While phishing attacks often use generic templates, whaling attacks are typically personalized and crafted to appear as though they are coming from a trusted source.

Anatomy of a Whaling Attack

A whaling attack typically consists of three phases: pre-attack, attack, and post-attack.

Whaling Attack Phase 1: Pre-attack

During the pre-attack phase, the attacker conducts reconnaissance to gather information about the target organization and identify potential victims. This may involve researching the organization’s structure, identifying high-level executives, and monitoring social media and other online sources for information about the target individuals.

Pre-attack Reconnaissance on Target Individuals

The attacker may also conduct reconnaissance on the target individuals, gathering information such as their job title, email address, and social media accounts. This information can be used to personalize the attack and make it more convincing.

Pre-attack Target Identification

Once the attacker has gathered sufficient information, they will identify their target individuals and begin the attack phase.

Whaling Attack Phase 2: Attack Phase

During the attack phase, the attacker will typically use social engineering tactics to trick the victim into taking the desired action, such as providing sensitive information or making a financial transaction.

Attacker Makes Initial Contact

The attacker may make initial contact with the victim via email, posing as a trusted source such as a colleague or business partner. The email may contain personal details about the victim to make it appear more legitimate.

Attacker Builds Trust

The attacker will then work to build trust with the victim, using social engineering tactics such as flattery and persuasion to make the victim feel comfortable and more likely to comply with their requests.

Attacker Requests Sensitive Information

Eventually, the attacker will make a request for sensitive information or a financial transaction. This may be in the form of a wire transfer, a request for login credentials, or a request for personal information such as Social Security numbers or other identifying information.

Whaling Attack Phase 3: Post-attack

Once the attacker has obtained the desired information or completed the financial transaction, they will enter the post-attack phase.

Attacker Exploits Information

During the information exploitation phase, the attacker will use the information obtained to further their goals, which may include identity theft, financial fraud, or other malicious activities.

Attacker Covers Tracks

To avoid detection, the attacker may attempt to cover their tracks by deleting evidence of the attack or using encryption or other techniques to hide their activities.

Types of Whaling Attacks

There are lots of different ways to dupe an executive into providing sensitive information or credentials that provide access to sensitive information. Here are five common types of whaling attacks:

Whaling Attack Type 1: CEO Fraud

In this type of attack, an attacker impersonates a CEO or other high-level executive and sends an email to an employee with a request for a wire transfer or other financial transaction. The email may appear urgent and may even use the CEO’s actual email signature or other identifying information to make it seem more legitimate.

Whaling Attack Type 2: Invoice Scam

In an invoice scam, an attacker sends a fake invoice or bill to an employee, usually from a vendor or supplier that the company regularly works with. The email may look legitimate, with branding and logos that match the real vendor’s website. The goal is to trick the employee into paying the fake invoice or transferring funds to the attacker’s account.

Whaling Attack Type 3: Gift Card Scam

In a gift card scam, an attacker sends an email to an employee, often posing as a high-level executive or HR representative, requesting the purchase of gift cards. The email may appear to be urgent and may use social engineering techniques to convince the employee that the request is legitimate. Once the employee purchases the gift cards, the attacker can use the funds for their own purposes.

Whaling Attack Type 4: W-2 Scam

In a W-2 scam, an attacker poses as a CEO or HR representative and sends an email requesting copies of employee W-2 forms. The attacker can then use this information for identity theft or other malicious purposes.

Whaling Attack Type 5: Phishing

Whaling attacks may also take the form of more traditional phishing attacks, where an attacker sends an email that appears to be from a legitimate source, such as a bank or service provider, and requests sensitive information like passwords or account details. The goal is to trick the recipient into giving up their login credentials, which the attacker can use for unauthorized access to sensitive information.

Common Tactics Used in Whaling Cybersecurity Attacks

Whaling attacks can take many forms, but they often involve some form of social engineering to gain the trust of the target. Here are five of the most common tactics used in whaling cybersecurity attacks:

Whaling Attack Tactic 1: Spear Phishing

Whaling attacks often involve spear phishing, where the attacker sends a personalized email that appears to be from a trusted source, such as a colleague or business partner. The email may contain personal details, like the recipient’s name and job title, to make it appear more legitimate.

Whaling Attack Tactic 2: Social Engineering

Whaling attacks may also use social engineering tactics to manipulate the victim into taking the desired action. For example, an attacker may create a sense of urgency, using phrases like “urgent” or “time-sensitive,” to convince the victim to act quickly and without questioning the request.

Whaling Attack Tactic 3: Spoofed Email Addresses

Attackers may use spoofed email addresses to make it appear as though the email is coming from a legitimate source, like a CEO or other high-level executive. They may also use email domains that closely resemble those of legitimate companies or organizations.

Whaling Attack Tactic 4: Impersonation

In some whaling attacks, the attacker may impersonate a high-level executive or other trusted individual within the organization. They may use information gleaned from social media or other sources to make the impersonation more convincing.

Whaling Attack Tactic 5: Malware

Whaling attacks may also involve the use of malware, such as a keylogger or remote access trojan (RAT), to gain access to the victim’s computer or other devices. The attacker can then use this access to steal sensitive information or control the victim’s computer.

Why Organizations Need to Take Whaling Attacks Seriously

These attacks are highly sophisticated and can be devastating to businesses, leading to significant financial losses and damage to reputation. There are several reasons why you should take whaling phishing seriously:

Targeted Attacks: Whaling attacks are targeted at specific individuals who have access to critical information or control over financial resources. Attackers invest significant time and effort in researching their victims and crafting convincing messages to deceive them into divulging sensitive information or transferring funds.

High Success Rate: Whaling attacks have a high success rate because they are carefully designed to trick victims into believing that the requests are legitimate. Attackers may use social engineering techniques or impersonate trusted contacts to gain the victim’s trust and encourage them to take the desired action.

Financial Impact: Whaling attacks can result in significant financial losses for organizations. Attackers may request large sums of money or steal valuable data, which can be sold on the black market or used for malicious purposes.

Reputational Damage: Whaling attacks can also damage the reputation of the targeted organization. Customers may lose trust in the company’s ability to protect their data and financial resources, leading to a loss of business and potential legal and regulatory consequences.

Compliance Issues: Businesses may be subject to penalties or fines under relevant laws and regulations, such as data protection laws like the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and others, if they experience a whaling-based attack. This type of attack is considered a violation of compliance requirements.

High-level Awareness Training on the Dangers of Whaling Attacks

Educating high-level executives and other employees about the dangers of whaling attacks is critical to preventing these types of attacks from being successful. Start by providing training on how to identify phishing and whaling attacks, including common tactics used by attackers. Emphasize the importance of verifying requests for sensitive information or financial transactions, even if they appear to come from a trusted source. Encourage the use of strong passwords and multi-factor authentication to protect against unauthorized access. Finally, make sure executives understand the potential consequences of falling victim to a whaling attack, including financial loss, reputational damage, and legal liability.

Kiteworks Helps Protects Businesses From Whaling Attacks

The Kiteworks Private Content Network enables organizations to mitigate the risk of potentially catastrophic whaling cyberattacks.

Kiteworks prevents access to sensitive content with multi-factor authentication, which adds an extra layer of security to employee accounts and reduces the risk of unauthorized access. Additionally, Kiteworks offers a secure email platform and email filtering capabilities that can identify and block emails from known phishing and whaling domains, further reducing the risk of an attack.

Other capabilities, like a hardened virtual appliance, embedded antivirus protection and intrusion detection system (IDS), TLS 1.2 encryption in transit and AES-256 at rest, and much more, all serve to protect the sensitive content you share from whaling, phishing, and other cyber threats.

The data security precautions provided by Kiteworks also help organizations demonstrate compliance with various data privacy regulations and standards such as Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC), NIST Cybersecurity Framework (NIST CSF), International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and many more.

To learn more about Kiteworks and how it can help your executives avoid falling victim to a whaling attack, schedule a custom demo today.


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