Whaling Dominates the Latest Wave of Phishing Attacks

December 28, 2015 @ 4:45 PM
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2 min read

A normal-looking request comes from the CEO or CFO of a company to its financial department. It requests that an amount of money be transferred to an external account and that it be done right now. Employees need to be wary of these events; they could be part of a new wave of specialized phishing attacks called whaling.

New Phishing Attacks On the Rise

CSO Online reported that security firm Mimecast has seen these kinds of attacks increase dramatically. About 55 percent of the 442 IT professionals Mimecast surveyed this month said their organizations have seen an increase in the volume of whaling attacks over the last three months. Those organizations surveyed were located in the U.S., U.K., South Africa and Australia.

It seems that these attacks may not be detectable by the simpler traces that are left behind in other kinds of attacks. Domain spoofing is the most popular strategy and accounts for 70 percent of such attacks, according to Mimecast. A spoofed domain that makes the message appear to be coming from a legitimate source is a potent tool, and the fraud often isn’t obvious from the email itself.

While the majority of these phishing attacks mask themselves as emails from the CEO, 35 percent of organizations have seen whaling that was attributed to the CFO. Either way, the cybercriminal behind the attack will have done plenty of research into company executives in order to match a profile.

It’s All About Social Engineering

“Whaling emails can be more difficult to detect because they don’t contain a hyperlink or malicious attachment, and rely solely on social engineering to trick their targets,” said Orlando Scott-Cowley, a cybersecurity strategist with Mimecast. The social engineering needed for such a successful attack can be aided by publicly available information about a company or individual employee.

Mimecast did recommend some mitigation strategies; educating senior management, key staff and finance teams is one of them. It would seem obvious to train staff on your company’s established transfer procedures, but many allow lax practices. Enforcing secondary confirmation of any unusual requests would be another prudent measure.

Another technique that is useful would be to conduct tests on your business to see how vulnerable your staff is to whaling attacks. Raising awareness among workers with low security IQs can help in the face of real attacks. Another idea from Mimecast is to use domain name registration alert services, which will alert you when domains are created that closely resemble your company’s, allowing security teams to stay ahead of cybercriminals.

Larry Loeb
Principal, PBC Enterprises

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE mag...
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