Whaling: How It Works and How to Avoid it? | EasyDMARC

Whaling: How It Works and How to Avoid it?

7 Min Read

Cyber-attacks are evolving, and many organizations are falling victim to more advanced means of data breach. With most businesses working remotely amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a rise in phishing attacks. During this time, Google recorded more than 240 million blocked COVID-19 phishing-related emails.

As phishing attacks multiply, organizations and businesses must adopt adequate security measures to protect against targeted cybercrime like whaling attacks. 

What is whaling in cyber awareness? Read on to learn what whaling in cyber security is, how it works, and how to avoid it.

What is Whaling in Cyber Security?

Whaling in cyber security is an advanced phishing attack method. Cybercriminals use it to impersonate executives at a given organization. This is usually a C-level executive like the Chief Accounting Officer or Chief Executive Officer. Also referred to as CEO fraud, cyber whaling uses the website and email spoofing techniques to trick victims into revealing sensitive or confidential information or transferring money into an account. 

With whaling phishing, cyber attackers require extensive research into the targeted organization, an in-depth understanding of its business processes, and planned steps to employ the best tactics. This threat is rising, and many organizations have been victims of whaling.

Now that you know what whaling is in cyber security, it’s time to compare it to other social engineering attacks

Differences Between Whaling and Other Phishing Types 

To better understand how cyber whaling attacks work, it’s essential to know the difference between this and other types of phishing. Although phishing, whaling, and spear-phishing are related, they differ significantly. 

Phishing is a cyberattack that uses SMS, emails, or other forms of communication to impersonate a trusted source and trick victims into transferring money or releasing sensitive information. For instance, an attacker can impersonate a trusted partner of an organization and trick the financial department into authorizing a payment. 

Spear-phishing is an attack that impersonates a known source, targeting specific people in the organization. Here, the attacker chooses a target, learns about the individual, and uses the knowledge to carry out a personalized attack. Instead of casting a wide net like the standard phishing attack, spear-phishing identifies special privileges and targets individuals. 

Cyber whaling is a type of spear-phishing attack that targets high-level members of an organization, like senior executives or high-level government officials. Whaling is similar to spear-phishing because it’s also a targeted attack, but whaling only targets the “big fish.”

How Whaling Works?

As mentioned, cyber whaling attacks require in-depth research and understanding of the business structure compared to spear-phishing and phishing attacks. To masquerade as a high-profile member of an organization, the attacker also needs to find the best way to mimic the target. 

Cyber actors check out an organization’s public records and social media to create a profile and execute an attack tailored to the target. It could include an email sent from the CEO’s email address or a top-level executive. 

In addition, such an email includes details that make it seem like it’s from a trusted source. It can even encompass the company’s logo or a fraudulent link to a website that looks legitimate. Cyber actors typically put in extra effort to make the scam look real because a high-level member’s trust and privileges within their company are high.

Whaling Attack Examples

In 2016, Snapchat’s payroll department received a whaling email from the CEO requesting staff’s payroll information. However, people at Snapchat were knowledgeable enough to discover the scam. Other companies aren’t that lucky. Ubiquiti Networks made a transfer of $46.7m after an email was seemingly sent by its CEO. 

In another whaling attack, another company’s staff transferred $17.2 million to an attacker after receiving a whaling email under the pretense of the request coming from the CEO. This one seemed genuine, as the organization planned to expand its business activities to China, and the request seemed legit. 

The attacks were successful because the victims failed to identify them as whaling phishing attacks or verify the requests with the person it seemingly came from.

Whaling Attacks Preventative Measures

Preventing your organization from whaling attacks is similar to mitigating standard phishing attacks. However, because of the high impact, cyber actors put extra effort into making the whaling scams look legitimate. Organizations need to provide information on what is whaling in cyber awareness to employees on the best practices to avoid such threats.

Educate Your Employees on Whaling

Top-level executives are common targets of this attack type. Still, the email needs to look legitimate for the whaling attack to succeed. Organizations must educate their staff and senior executives to identify and prevent cybersecurity threats. 

Keep Sensitive Information Confidential on Social Media

Impersonating a high-level executive should be easy enough. There’s typically a lot of information on them on the internet. Cyber actors fish for information wherever they can find anything, and public social media profiles are a goldmine for them.

Top executives should keep their information as private as possible on social media to avoid becoming targets of phishing attacks. Most SM accounts allow privacy restrictions on who can view or access information on your profile. 

Ask the Sender Before Taking Action

One of the most common whaling methods relies on the victim’s response to urgency. In most cases, the attacker sends an email conveying an urgent request. This makes the recipient take action without verification. Understanding this tactic emancipates the employee to avoid falling prey to whaling traps. 

With that in mind, staff and top-level executives in an organization should undergo regular training to verify any requests and identify a whaling phishing email. You can call the impersonated individual first before carrying out the request.

What is Whaling in Cyber Awareness and How to Improve It?

Let’s see what is whaling in cyber awareness. It’s the combination of knowing and following best practices to protect your organization’s assets from whaling attacks. Here’s what you and your organization can do.

Penetration Testing

Penetration testing involves executing simulated attacks on networks to point out weaknesses in the system and prevent real-world attacks. You can imitate whaling attacks using popular tactics to identify any vulnerability from the employees and security systems. 

Offer Whaling Cyber Awareness Training

Organize a “What is Whaling Cyber Awareness” trainings to educate employees on whaling phishing tactics and how to avoid them. Make it your purpose to give them tools that will help them verify the email sources and processes that will encourage conversation within the organization.

Implement SPF, DKIM, and DMARC

Email security is a convoluted issue, especially when it comes to social engineering attacks like whaling. Cyber awareness among your employees is essential, but you still need a solid technological foundation with robust protection to avoid cyberattacks, asset loss, or data leaks.

First and foremost, whaling is a phishing attack, so achieving protection through email security protocols is a pretty good starting point no matter your business scope.

Once you have your SPF and DKIM configured, you’ll be able to move to DMARC implementation. In time, due to DMARC reports and source monitoring, your email infrastructure will become stronger. In the end, you’ll be able to move your organization one step closer to full protection from whaling and other phishing attacks.

Set Security Guidelines

To combat whaling and other human-based attacks, organizations should set strict security guidelines and verification processes that employees must follow consistently and in the event of any suspicious activity. Staff members should feel at ease sending a confirmation request through the company’s communication channel if the legitimacy of an email is in question.


Now that we learned what whaling is in cybersecurity and what you need to do to boost cyber awareness against it, let’s remind ourselves again: “Whaling attacks pose severe threats to organizations.” They’re more sophisticated than typical phishing scams and are often difficult to spot. Moreover, they can cause exponentially larger losses due to their association with the higher-level officer.

Content Team Lead | EasyDMARC
Hasmik talks about DMARC, email security, and cyberawareness. She finds joy in turning tough technical concepts into approachable and fun articles in plain language.


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