If you work in the accounting department of your company, you need to be more vigilant as cybercriminals are specifically targeting account department executives. Whaling attacks are on the increase and cybercriminals are using domain spoofing techniques to fool end users into making bank transfers from corporate accounts. Once money has been transferred into the account of the attacker, there is a strong probability that the funds will not be recoverable.
Whaling, as you may suspect, is a form of phishing. Rather than cybercriminals sending out large volumes of spam emails containing malware or links to malicious websites, individuals are targeted and few emails are sent. Cybercriminals are putting a lot of time and effort into researching their targets before launching their attack.
The aim is to gather intel on an individual that has the authorization to make bank transfers from company accounts. Individuals are usually identified and researched using social media websites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
When individuals are identified and the name and email address of their boss, CFO, or CEO is discovered, they are sent an email requesting a bank transfer be made. The email is well written, there is a pressing need for the transfer to be made, and full details are provided in the email. They are also given a reasonable explanation as to why the transfer must be made. The email also comes from senior management.
In the majority of cases, the transfer request will not follow standard company procedures as these are not known by the attackers. However, since an email will appear to have been sent from a senior figure in the company, some account department employees will not question the request. They will do as instructed out of fear of the individual in question, or in an attempt to show willingness to do what is required of them by their superiors.
Unfortunately for IT security professionals, whaling emails are difficult to detect without an advanced spam filtering solution in place. No attachments are included in the email, there are no malicious links, just a set of instructions. The attack just uses social engineering techniques to fool end users into making the transfer.
What is Domain Spoofing?
The whaling attacks are often successful, as users are fooled by a technique called domain spoofing. Domain spoofing involves the creation of an email account using a domain that is very similar to that used by the company. Provided the attacker can get the correct format for the email, and has the name of a high-level account executive, at first glance the email address will appear to be correct.
However, closer inspection will reveal that one character in the domain name is different. Typically, an i will be replaced with an L or a 1, an o with a zero, or a Cyrillic character may be used which is automatically converted into a standard letter. If the recipient looks at the email address, they may not notice the small change.
To reduce the risk of account department employees falling for whaling attacks, anti-spam solutions should be implemented and configured to block emails from similar domains. Staff must also be told not to make any transfer requests that arrive via email without first double checking with the sender of the email that the request is genuine, and to always carefully check the email address of the sender of such a request.