Whaling Attack: What It Is and How You Can Prevent One

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Cyberattacks have been on the rise, as cybercriminals continue to come up with ingenious attacks to target people and steal confidential information. One of these attacks is a whaling attack. According to the Security Magazine, these attacks have increased by 131% between the first quarters of 2020 and 2021. Whaling attacks also cost organizations an average of $1.8 billion each year

If these numbers scare you, read on. This article will teach you all about protecting yourself from whaling attacks. I’ll be discussing what whaling attacks are, how they work, and what you can do to prevent them. Finally, I’ll show you a list of important security tools that can also help in preventing whaling attacks.

Having said that, let’s start by understanding what whaling attacks are in the first place.

What Are Whaling Attacks?

A whaling attack, also known as CEO fraud, is a cyberattack that mainly targets top company executives and other important people in your organization. The term “whaling” is derived from the size of the attack itself. It also hints at its potential results for both the attacker and the organization. It’s almost like landing a prized catch when you go fishing.

Whaling attacks target these executives because they have access to confidential information, such as the organization’s bank accounts. When an attacker gains access to these executives’ computers, they can easily steal valuable data. 

In all, whaling attacks use phishing strategies to trick company executives into revealing sensitive information. So how do attackers accomplish this? You’ll find out in the next section!

How Do Whaling Attacks Work?

Cybercriminals take their time conducting research about an executive before carrying out a whaling attack. They go through the executive’s social media, and other publicly available information online. Then, they extract information that gives them insights into the executive’s personality. Based on this research, the attacker then crafts an email message. This “tailored” message is then sent to the executive, who gets fooled into thinking it’s authentic.

These personalized emails may seem like they’re coming from a senior manager. They might even contain the organization’s logo or other pertinent information. Again, attackers design these emails to make the targeted executive believe in the email’s authenticity. The victim will then fall for the attackers’ request, and give away the required information.

Sometimes, the request can be as simple as clicking on a malicious link. This link will download malware to the executive’s system. Additionally, the email can ask an executive to reply back to it with confidential information. Did you know that 1 in every 3,226 emails received by an executive is the start of an attempted whaling attack?

So, how can you identify whether an email is from a legitimate source or not? Let’s find out. 

How to Prevent Whaling Attacks?

Defending against whaling attacks and their consequences starts with education and awareness. Regular training sessions on keeping your guard up, identifying spoofed email IDs, etc. are the key to preventing them. Here are 5 methods you can use to prevent whaling attacks:

1. Enforce Security Awareness and Training

One of the first things you can do to prevent a whaling attack is to implement security awareness and training. When a targeted executive receives an email asking them to perform any action, the first thing they should do is to see if they can spot anything unusual about the request. Some pertinent questions they should ask themselves are:

  • Am I expecting this email?
  • Does it have anything to do with some recent sudden changes in the organization?
  • Does it follow the usual pattern (signature, tone, choice of words) of the email’s sender? (in this case, the cyberattacker is pretending to be the actual sender) 
  • Is anything suspicious about the email’s contents?
  • Why is this email asking me to perform that particular action?

When in doubt, contact the supposed manager/colleague/sender. Ask for clarification before taking any action. You can also look closely at the sender’s email ID for any misspellings. For example, [email protected] and [email protected] look very similar, right? However, if you look close enough, the second one’s domain has a misspelling in the word “microsoft.” Consider this point when implementing security awareness and training.

2. Adopt OPSEC Practices

Operations Security (OPSEC) is a security strategy for classifying information and protecting access to that information. This ensures that cybercriminals don’t use this information, even if they get the details through whaling or phishing. Furthermore, this strategy continuously evaluates the vulnerabilities in your network. Then, it plugs any potential lapses. 

In other words, OPSEC practices prevent a whaling attack. If an attacker manages to slip through regardless, OPSEC also mitigates the damages. Many times, these OPSEC practices also include a disaster recovery plan to minimize the impact.

Some OPSEC practices that can help with whaling attacks are:

  • Creating different compartments, so the cybercriminal can’t get all the information about you from a single source
  • Encouraging employees to continuously perform personal risk assessments
  • Providing additional checks for access to sensitive data

3. Implement Email Security Practices

Effective email security practices can prevent whaling and phishing attacks. Here are some strategies you can use within your organization:

  • Implement a strong password policy for emails 
  • Use multi-factor authentication for email access
  • Leverage email analytics tools to identify risky behavior
  • Scan all attachments/emails if possible
  • Train your employees to identify attacks in the first place

A combination of the above measures can reduce the chances of a whaling attack occurring.

4. Monitor Third-Party Vendors

Third-party vendors can often be a security issue because you have no control over their security practices. Any data breach in their systems can impact you greatly. This is why it’s important to continuously monitor third-party vendors. and have checks in place while handling any emails/access requests from them.

5. Implement Data Protection Software

Many security tools are available today to prevent a whaling attack. Consider using them to add another layer of security to your emails and streamline access to sensitive information. Typically, these tools flag emails based on the sender’s domain and any common and suspicious keywords such as “money” and “wire transfer.” These tools can also prevent spyware and malware effectively. In turn, they can help reduce the chances of malicious software infecting your computers.

The above-mentioned strategies should give you a good idea of how to secure your emails. In brief, you’ll need a combination of good security practices and training. In turn, these measures can prevent a ton of cyberattacks, not just whaling and phishing. 

Next, I’ll show you some popular tools that you can leverage to prevent whaling attacks.

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Best Security Software Tools to Prevent Whaling Attacks

Whaling attacks are difficult to spot because the attacker’s emails look legitimate. While awareness and training are helpful, consider implementing automated security measures. They help a ton! 

Here’s a look at the 5 most effective ones in the market currently:

1. GFI MailEssentials

MailEssentials is an anti-spam and phishing email software that blocks malicious emails from reaching your inbox. In turn, this reduces the chances of whaling and phishing attacks.

This tool comes with 14 anti-spam filters, four antivirus engines, and an advanced malware scanning feature. Together, they block viruses, malware, and ransomware. MailEssentials also helps you save server space. 

Furthermore, it blocks spoofed emails, any email from blocklisted DNS servers or forged senders, non-RFC compliant emails, and from known phishing site URLs. All these measures greatly reduce the chances of successful whaling attacks.

2. Mimecast

Mimecast takes a multi-layered approach to tackle whaling. It uses an anti-spam and anti-malware program to weed out spam and malware-ridden emails. 

Moreover, it works with DNS authentication services and uses a technology called Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC) to evaluate the legitimacy of the sender’s domain. 

In particular, its Impersonation Protect feature scans and evaluates every incoming email for indicators of personal attacks, as well as any form of impersonation.


INKY uses an advanced brand forgery detection technology called Computer Vision to identify an email’s source. 

In particular, it examines a company’s logos to see if they’re authentic. The advantage of this state-of-the-art tool is that it examines an email from a human perspective, but more efficiently. 

In this sense, it looks for specific words that can raise a red flag, such as misspellings. It also tracks the emotions used, and more. This helps to identify phishing and whaling emails better. It locates these tiny details better than humans do.

4. Zenarmor

Sunnyvalley’s Zenarmor is a lightweight firewall that works well across all environments. It continuously monitors every packet that enters your network, including emails, and detects the presence of advanced threats. It uses AI to perform a real-time classification of these data packets so that no malware can enter your network. 

5. Phish Protection

Phish Protection uses the DMARC technology to identify suspicious domain names of the sender. Typically, it looks for misspelled words, such as “micrsoft,” and flags the respective emails. Besides that, it also uses other defense layers like malware protection, domain impersonation protection, and virus protection, to create a secure email messaging environment. 

Furthermore, its advanced threat defense strategies, such as Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), reduce the chances of you receiving malicious emails. 

Thus, these are some of the popular choices for preventing whaling attacks. Read through the above-mentioned tools’ features in detail to understand which of these is the best fit for your organization. Let’s have a quick recap!

Final Thoughts

To conclude, a whaling attack is a dangerous cyberattack because it’s difficult to identify. Cybercriminals use these attacks on company executives, as they’re more likely to have access to financial and sensitive information. Essentially, this attack plays on human emotions, as it involves sending emails from spoof IDs that appear legitimate. In this article, I talked about what a whaling attack is, and how it works. I also showed you methods to prevent these attacks from happening in the first place. Lastly, I discussed some popular security software that can add to your organization’s email security. I hope you can use the information in this article to help you prevent a whaling attack in the future.

Do you have more questions about whaling attacks? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below!


What’s a good example of a whaling attack?

For example, a cybercriminal claiming to represent your organization’s vendor will send an email asking for payment. This email is typically sent to an individual who has the authority within the organization to make payments. The cyberattacker’s email ID will most likely have a misspelled domain name, so remain vigilant. 

Are whaling and phishing attacks the same?

More or less, yes. Whaling is a form of a phishing attack, where an email gets sent to an individual within an organization asking them to perform a specific action. The key difference is that in a whaling attack, an email gets sent to a high-ranking executive who holds greater power within an organization. That’s why this attack is also known as CEO fraud

Are whaling attacks easy to detect?

No, whaling attacks aren’t easy to detect because they’re usually sent to only one or a few individuals within a company. A lot of research goes behind these emails thanks to the target’s social media profiles. The attackers gather information from these profiles. Then, the attacker uses this information to create an email that looks legitimate and believable.

What kind of attack is a whaling attack?

Whaling attacks come under the category of social engineering attacks. Unfortunately, this is the most common attack vector in the world of cybersecurity, as it plays on people’s emotions. It uses targeted manipulation and influences the victim to perform specific actions. 

What can I do to prevent a whaling attack in my organization?

Preventing a whaling attack requires a concerted security strategy. Start by implementing awareness and training routines about the attacks. Follow this up with stringent email security practices to filter out spam and malware. Alongside that, use third-party tools to detect misspelled domains, misrepresented logos, and other malicious information in emails. 


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