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Whale Phishing 101 How to Avoid Becoming the Next Victim?

Whale Phishing Attack & Protection Tactics for C-Suite Executives
Written By Aswin Vijayan    
Anuraag Singh
Approved By Anuraag Singh  
Published On Mar 29th, 2024

Overview: Whale phishing, CEO Fraud, Whaling attack? Find out what this new threat is that 87% of CEOs experienced last year alone. Get the stats and strategies you need to protect your bottom line.

In the online world, Whaling (Whale + phishing) is a type of highly specialized cyber attack directed towards the C-Suite executives of an organization. 

To get a better idea, look at this scenario.

Imagine being a CEO who is going through their inbox to check the latest developments on a project. Then, all of a sudden, you get an email from your trusted colleague requesting a swift financial transfer. Moreover, as it is marked as urgent, you immediately open the mail. You recognize the name, the tone seems familiar, and the situation appears legitimate.

However, this is not what it seems, as there is a high probability that it is an attempt at CEO fraud.

Like our example here, every whaling attack email is characterized by a highly believable message in a digital format. Therefore, to understand why many smart people fall victim to such a scam, let us look at how the word itself came to be.

Table of Content

Breakdown of Whale Phishing Definition

The phrase is a combination of two different words, so see how they fit into the context.

The term whale is used to describe any member of an organization that holds a top position. And as a result, have significant leverage over the critical data of a company. 

Usually, they overlap with the elite C-Suite with a corner office, which is why this attack is also referred to as CEO fraud. However, organizational executives are not the only ones in danger, as even celebrities and other high-value targets are in the crosshairs of hackers.

Phishing, as many already know, is a type of cyber fraud that attempts to steal information or scam money from a person. Moreover, the arrival of new terms like vishing, quishing, etc. means that it is no longer limited to those badly written emails but has evolved into a much greater threat. Many people make the mistake of thinking that whale phishing and spear phishing are one and the same. But it is not. So, to avoid any confusion between the terms, here is a tabular explanation.

Phishing vs Spear Phishing vs Whaling Attack



Spear Phishing

Whaling Attack


Many people, random recipients

Specific individuals within an organization

Senior-level executives,  celebrities, and influencers


Low, relies on mass emails

Moderate, requires research and personalization

High, involves extensive research and social engineering


Generic, uses common bait topics

Customized with specific names, titles, and details

Super personalized, using in-depth research and information

Information used

General knowledge, often publicly available

Specific information about the target’s role, company, interests

Deep digging into the target’s current personal life situation, finances, and ongoing professional activities

Attack goal

General data theft, malware infection

Specific data theft, financial fraud, and identity theft

High-impact damage, espionage, and disruption

Success rate

Lower due to the generic nature

Moderate, relies on personalized details

Higher, but riskier (on the part of the attacker) due to the targeted nature


“Urgent: Update your account information!”

“Hi [Name], your boss needs you to approve this invoice.”

“Dear CEO, I urgently need your approval for this confidential transfer.”


To make it simple, whaling attacks are a special form of spear phishing, which in turn is a subset of phishing itself. Now we know exactly what a whaling attack means, so let us see why it became such a threat.

What Caused the Spike in Whale Phishing Cases Across the Globe?

Not one but a combination of many different factors together led to the increase in instances of whaling attacks (the cybercrime one) worldwide. Here is a compilation of what we think are the primary causes.

  • After the pandemic, many organizations never reverted back to the office environment. Moreover, this remote work meant that almost all the communication became digital. Which in turn created a wide pool for the attackers to phish from.
  • In an attempt to differentiate themselves from the rest many of the communication and collaboration tools focused on adding new features. Thus the security of those applications came second. Combine that with a lack of awareness even within the top leadership of organizations gave hackers ample opportunity to strike. It is evident from a recent example where a Microsoft Teams phishing attack pushed DarkGate malware onto workstations.
  • Another reason is that traditional large-net phishing attacks have become outdated. Email providers automatically prevent such spam messages from ever reaching the inbox of a potential victim. So, nefarious entities were forced to change their tactics. Moreover, as the possible payout from a successful whaling attack is massive many hackers believe it was worth the extra effort.

Prevalence of previously unavailable technology like AI, Deep fakes, etc also became available for the masses. Giving attackers just the tools they need to carry out such an operation. See for yourself the modus operandi of CEO fraud as it helps in deploying prevention tactics later.

How Does a Whaling Attack Take Place?

Before the Attack:

  • Every Whale phishing starts with information gathering. Once hackers pinpoint a victim, they start accumulating all the publicly available data for their target.
  • After which, they do an even deeper search using leaked material present on the dark web. Some highly skilled hackers may even use MITM (Man-In-The-Middle) attacks to overhear official communication. Moreover, the information gathered from such intercepts is used to build a genuine story that the victim would believe.

During the Attack:

  • Hackers disguise themselves to mimic another colleague within the organization. It usually happens due to poor security policies or leaked password credentials.
  • A digital message usually in the form of an email is sent out to the target. Which are made believable by including details that only senior colleagues know about.
  • Furthermore, this message typically contains specific phrases that appeal to human emotions. Like urgency (do this before a deadline), fear of loss (client withdrawing from a project), and desire to help (pose as someone in need).
  • So the target subconsciously shuts off their rational thinking and ends up making rash decisions. This is all part of the clever social engineering tactics that these criminals have mastered over time.

After the Whaling Attack:

  • Once the victim falls into the trap hackers compromise the critical systems, data, or both. Hackers may also deploy ransomware to lock access and demand compensation.
  • Sometimes there is no direct damage, but the hardware is used to mine crypto or steal confidential data. There have been cases where hackers dropped scripts. Which stay hidden (like a sleeper cell) and get triggered to wreak havoc at some later date.
  • As the top executives are directly affected. Many may even fail to realize until it’s too late or don’t report out of embarrassment.

However, they should contact the relevant authorities ASAP to minimize the damage done. Let’s look at the most common preventive measures against such a crime.

How to Prevent Whale Phishing In Your Organization

A whaling attack attempt can only be made against someone if the attacker has a clear understanding of the victim’s current circumstances or recent events in their life. Utilizing human vulnerabilities is key for this type of scam to work. So keep this in mind while making custom strategies of your own. Some universal guidelines to reduce CEO fraud instances in your organization:

  • Shut Down the Leaks: Avoid divulging personal information (birthdays, addresses, contact details, etc.) on public forums and social media. Hackers and other nefarious entities are constantly on the lookout for such scoop.
  • Deploy a Digital Watchdog: Deploy a SOC to monitor all traffic going in and out of your organizational network. Moreover, large MNCs are suggested to automate the process with the help of aiSOC. It detects and alters you on any unwanted entity that is trying to get in.
  • Empower Your Employees: Keep your workforce cyber-aware. That means news about the latest threats and training them accordingly. All official conversations should be kept on a secure channel with end-to-end encryption. This prevents the MITM attack from being used against your organization.

This attack cannot be successful unless done remotely. Use this to your advantage. If you suspect that an email is a whaling attempt then ask them for an in-person meeting. Even in case of an emergency(the false scenario mentioned in the mail) the person who sent it tries to avoid in-person contact. Which is enough to rule out the genuineness of the mail.

Expert’s Choice to Identify A Possible Whaling Attack Network

Even if you successfully mitigate the threat of CEO fraud, it still remains a cause for concern. That is because hackers still have access to your info and you don’t have any idea where they got it from. In the worst-case scenario, there might be a disgruntled employee who might be misusing their position to leak information.

To deal with such a situation, we suggest that you take the help of MailXaminer the best-in-class email forensics tool on the market. Additionally, its ability to visualize, filter, and search through thousands of emails is second to none.

Schedule a Demo Purchase Tool

Also, with the help of its word cloud feature, you can clearly identify the most used words used by hackers. Use it to set up mailing policies on your business mail that put all similar emails directly into the junk mail.


In this write-up, we made the best attempt to explain what whale phishing is, why it is a concern, and how to stay safe. Knowing is the first step towards preventing such a cyberattack from affecting your organization. As it is a digital crime against the most important members of a company, it becomes mandatory to lay out a strategy beforehand. Moreover, for investigators, we provide a state-of-the-art utility that helps uncover such nefarious attempts.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Why does a whaling attack require more than one person?
Ans. Whale phishing is like a carefully planned heist. So, only a crew of uniquely skilled individuals can carry out these attacks. Every person is responsible for a specific task that includes research, social engineering, hacking, and finance to orchestrate the scam.

Q. What are the components of a typical bait mail sent by whale phishers?
Ans. Whale phishers try to reel you in with bait emails that impersonate authority figures. The mail itself is written in a language that uses urgency to cloud judgment. Moreover, it is bound to include malicious links or requests for sensitive information. So, before proceeding exercise caution and if possible verify in person.

Q. Are emails the sole means of conducting CEO fraud?
Ans. As most business communication gets done via email, traditional attackers still prefer to use emails. However, people and even organizations are now moving to instant messaging apps so are the hackers. Therefore, it is equally important to keep an eye out for potential whaling attempts while using such applications.