What is Executive Phishing (Whaling)?

Diana Ipacs

April 12, 2023

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Executive phishing revealed: explore its types, see real-life cases, and learn essential prevention tactics to secure your organization.


Imagine yourself as a high-ranking executive in a successful company. One day, while sipping your morning coffee and browsing through your inbox, you come across an email from a trusted colleague. The subject line grabs your attention: "Urgent: Confidential Document for Approval." You open the email, and it seems legitimate, with your colleague's signature and a link to a document that looks just like the ones you review daily.

You click the link, and a login page appears. Without thinking twice, you enter your credentials. It's only after a few minutes that you realize something isn't quite right. That sinking feeling hits you: Have you just fallen victim to a cyber attack?

This is executive phishing or “whaling”, a cunning and often overlooked cyber threat that targets high-ranking individuals within organizations. In this blog post, we will delve into the deceptive world of executive phishing, exploring its various manifestations, sharing real-life stories that serve as examples, and empowering you with the necessary knowledge to fortify your defenses against your online adversaries. Join us as we show how to safeguard yourself and your organization from executive phishing.

Executive phishing portrait

Executive Phishing Definition

Whaling, often considered the "big fish" of executive phishing, specifically targets high-ranking individuals such as CEOs, CFOs, or other top executives. Cybercriminals masquerade as trusted colleagues, vendors, or business partners to deceive these executives into disclosing sensitive information or authorizing fraudulent transactions.

A prime example of this took place in 2016 when the CEO of FACC, an Austrian aerospace parts manufacturer, fell victim to a whaling attack that cost the company around €50 million. In this case, cybercriminals impersonated the CEO and requested a wire transfer from the finance department, which was carried out before the scam was detected. Whaling attacks increased significantly over the past few years, highlighting the need for organizations to remain vigilant and safeguard their executives from such targeted attacks.

Everyday Phishing vs. Executive Phishing: Comparing Tactics and Victims

So what sets apart regular phishing from a whaling attack? While both types of phishing attacks aim to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information or granting unauthorized access, their targets, approaches, and the level of personalization involved are all different. Let's take a closer look at these:


To imagine everyday phishing, picture a fisherman casting a wide net, targeting a large number of individuals without any particular focus on their position or status within an organization. The goal is simply to catch as many victims as possible.

Now, imagine a fisherman patiently waiting with a single line, carefully baited for one specific, high-ranking executive. The objective is to deceive this individual because of their access to valuable information and resources. That’s executive phishing.

Approach and Personalization

Everyday phishing attacks often feel like a one-size-fits-all approach, with generic, pre-crafted email templates that require little personalization. They may impersonate a popular brand or service and use a sense of urgency to persuade the victim to take action.

In contrast, whaling attacks are more like a tailored suit, designed to fit the target perfectly. Cybercriminals conduct extensive research to gather information about the target, then craft personalized messages using the target's name, job title, or other personal information to establish trust and credibility.

By understanding these differences and being aware of the various tactics used in both everyday phishing and executive phishing or whaling attacks, you'll be better equipped to spot the red flags and protect yourself and your organization from these cyber threats.

Phishing and whaling

Types of Executive Phishing

Business Email Compromise (BEC): A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Business Email Compromise (BEC) is a type of executive phishing attack where cybercriminals compromise or spoof a high-ranking executive's email account to deceive employees, clients, or partners into performing actions that benefit the attackers, such as transferring funds or revealing confidential information.

In 2014, Scoular Company, a US-based global commodities trader, fell victim to a BEC scam that cost the company a staggering $17.2 million. The attackers impersonated the company's CEO in emails to the financial controller, who unwittingly followed the fraudulent instructions to wire funds to international bank accounts.

BEC scams resulted in $1.7 billion in losses in 2019, emphasizing the need for organizations to bolster their email security measures and train employees to recognize such threats.

Spear Phishing: Aiming for the Bullseye

Spear phishing is a targeted form of phishing that focuses on a specific individual or organization. Cybercriminals conduct extensive research to gather information about the target, then craft personalized messages designed to deceive the recipient into revealing sensitive information, downloading malware, or clicking on malicious links.

One of the most infamous spear phishing attacks occurred in 2011 when RSA Security, a major cybersecurity firm, was breached. Cybercriminals sent a seemingly innocuous email with an Excel spreadsheet attachment to HR employees. Once opened, the attachment unleashed malware that ultimately led to the theft of critical information related to the company's security products.

The overwhelming majority of cyberattacks start with a spear phishing email, underscoring the importance of raising awareness and implementing robust security measures to protect against this pervasive threat.

How Not to Fall Victim to Executive Phishing

As an executive, how can you protect yourself and your organization from the cunning tactics of executive phishing, particularly whaling? What steps can you take to ensure you don't become the catch of the day?

Guard Your Sensitive Information

One of the most effective ways to fend off whaling attacks is by safeguarding your sensitive information. Cybercriminals use your personal and professional details to craft highly targeted emails. But what if they can't get their hands on this information? Limit the amount of personal data you share on social media and professional networking sites. Review your privacy settings and be cautious about accepting connection requests from unfamiliar individuals. The less information available to cybercriminals, the more difficult it becomes for them to launch successful executive phishing attacks.

In addition to guarding your online presence, ensure that your organization maintains strict control over access to sensitive information. Implement a "need-to-know" policy, where employees can only access the information necessary for their job functions. Regularly review and update user access rights, and promptly revoke access for employees who no longer require it.

Look Before You Leap & Verify Email Authenticity

Do you ever receive an email that looks legitimate but leaves you with a lingering sense of doubt? It's crucial to verify the authenticity of any suspicious email before taking any action. Reach out to the supposed sender through a different channel, like a phone call or instant message, and confirm the email's legitimacy. Be wary of unusual requests, such as urgent wire transfers or changes to account details, especially if they lack context or deviate from standard procedures.

Establish clear guidelines within your organization for handling sensitive requests via email. Encourage employees to double-check with their colleagues or superiors before taking any action, and consider implementing multi-layered approval processes for transactions involving sensitive data or funds.

Take Advantage of the Human Firewall

In other words, empower your employees against executive phishing. The human element plays a vital role in defending against executive phishing. But how can you ensure that your employees are well-equipped to identify and report potential threats? Providing regular training and establishing clear reporting procedures can empower your team to act as a strong human firewall against cybercriminals.

Invest in comprehensive cybersecurity training programs that cover various aspects of executive phishing, from recognizing telltale signs to understanding the potential consequences of falling for an attack. Use real-life examples and simulations to give employees hands-on experience in identifying and responding to threats. Encourage a culture of open communication and emphasize the importance of reporting any suspicious activity, even if it turns out to be a false alarm.

Build a Digital Fortress: Advanced Email Security to Thwart Executive Phishing

Implement advanced email security measures, such as multi-factor authentication, email filtering, and sandboxing, to prevent malicious emails from reaching your inbox.

Multi-factor authentication requires users to provide additional verification, such as a fingerprint or a temporary code sent to a mobile device, to access their accounts. This added layer of security makes it more difficult for cybercriminals to gain unauthorized access, even if they've successfully phished a user's credentials.

Email filtering solutions can help identify and quarantine potential phishing emails before they reach users' inboxes. By scanning incoming messages for malicious content, links, or attachments, these filters can minimize the likelihood of employees encountering executive phishing attacks.

Sandboxing allows your organization to safely analyze suspicious email attachments and links by isolating them in a secure, virtual environment. This process helps to identify potential threats before they can cause any damage, further reducing the risk of executive phishing incidents.

Monitor for Suspicious Activity

Awareness and vigilance are key components of effective cybersecurity. How can you stay on top of potential executive phishing threats? Actively monitor for suspicious activity, such as unauthorized access to accounts, unusual patterns of communication, or unexpected changes to sensitive data.

Implement continuous monitoring tools to detect and alert you to any anomalies within your organization's network. Encourage employees to report any unusual behavior or requests, and foster a culture of collaboration and information sharing. By staying vigilant and working together, your organization can more effectively identify and respond to executive phishing threats.

Learn from the Past: Analyzing and Adapting to Evolving Threats

As cybercriminals refine their tactics, it's crucial for organizations to adapt their strategies to stay ahead of the curve. How can you ensure your organization remains resilient in the face of ever-changing executive phishing threats? Regularly analyze past incidents, stay informed about emerging trends, and adjust your defenses accordingly to build a robust and adaptable cybersecurity posture.

Conduct regular risk assessments to identify potential weaknesses in your organization's defenses and prioritize improvements. Stay up to date on the latest executive phishing tactics, tools, and techniques by subscribing to cybersecurity news feeds and participating in industry forums. By proactively adapting your strategy and staying informed, your organization will be better prepared to face the challenges of evolving executive phishing attacks.

Executive phishing email

What to Do When You've Fallen Victim to Executive Phishing

If you or someone in your organization has fallen victim to an executive phishing attack, it's crucial to act quickly to mitigate the potential damage. Here are some immediate actions to take:

  1. 1
    Change your passwords: Reset the passwords for any compromised accounts, as well as any other accounts that share the same or similar passwords.
  2. 2
    Notify your organization: Inform your IT department, security team, or management about the incident to ensure they can take appropriate action.
  3. 3
    Monitor your accounts: Keep a close eye on your financial and online accounts for any signs of unauthorized activity.
  4. 4
    Report the incident: Contact your financial institution or credit card issuer if you suspect fraudulent transactions or unauthorized access to your accounts.

Seeking Help: Reach Out To Organizations Dedicated To Cybersecurity

Several organizations and agencies are committed to helping individuals and businesses deal with the aftermath of a cyberattack, including executive phishing incidents. Some of these organizations include:

  1. 1
    The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3): A partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, the IC3 accepts online reports of internet-based crimes, including phishing. Visit their website to file a complaint.
  2. 2
    The Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG): A global coalition of businesses, governments, and law enforcement agencies, the APWG works to combat phishing and related cybercrimes.
  3. 3
    The Federal Trade Commission (FTC): The FTC helps consumers and businesses navigate identity theft, fraud, and cybersecurity issues. Visit their website for resources and guidance on what to do after a phishing attack.

Putting Your Cybersecurity Knowledge to Work

You've gained valuable insights into the world of executive phishing, the different types, real-life examples, and crucial prevention strategies. Armed with this knowledge, it's time to put it into practice and make a tangible difference in your organization's cybersecurity.

To stay informed and deepen your understanding, consider subscribing to reputable cybersecurity newsletters, joining online forums, or attending industry conferences and webinars. Engage with experts and peers to exchange experiences, best practices, and stay up-to-date with the latest developments.

Share what you've learned with your colleagues, promote a culture of vigilance, and contribute to implementing safeguards against executive phishing. By working together, we can create a more secure digital environment, outsmart cybercriminals, and protect our valuable assets in the online world.

If your company is looking for IT professionals and you are interested in IT recruitment or IT staff augmentation, please contact us and we will be happy to help you find the right person for the job.

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