Executive Phishing: 3 Common Attacks

Executive phishing is a top cybersecurity concern for organizations of all sizes, contributing to the more than $43 billion (USD) in losses organizations experienced between 2016 and 2021. If you’ve ever received a message from someone impersonating a senior executive at your company, then you understand the danger and effectiveness of this type of cyberattack. Executive phishing is an increasingly common attack method that hackers use to access sensitive information, initiate wire transfer fraud, and more.

Read on to learn about the menace of executive phishing and how you can prevent these types of attacks from compromising your organization.

What is executive phishing?

Executive phishing, also known as CEO fraud, is type of cyberattack in which hackers impersonate senior executives to trick employees into divulging sensitive information or wiring funds. In this spear phishing attack, cybercriminals use social engineering techniques, including creating a sense of urgency to increase the effectiveness of their attacks.

Executive phishing - the use of spear phishing and sense of urgency

What is whaling?

While executive phishing attacks target employees by posing as senior executives, whaling is when threat actors target senior executives by posing as a legitimate business or partner. In a typical whaling attack, threat actors will target C-level executives to initiate a wire transfer or obtain sensitive information. Using personalized information about the targeted individual, hackers send phishing links or attachments laced with malware to extract information from their victims or compromise their systems.

The cost of executive phishing

With hackers refining their techniques and attacks, organizations must increasingly account for executive phishing attacks to strengthen their cybersecurity posture. This cyberthreat can result in significant financial losses for victims.

In addition to financial losses, executive phishing attacks can result in other negative consequences, including:

  • Compromised login credentials
  • Disclosure of sensitive company information
  • Blackmail upon obtaining confidential data
  • Infected systems or devices

In short, executive phishing attacks can be costly if left unchecked, which is why your organization needs to know the common types of executive phishing and clone phishing attacks and how to detect them.

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Two common executive phishing attacks and how to spot them

Executive phishing attacks can use different forms and techniques to target organizations of all sizes. Knowing the different types of executive phishing attacks and the techniques used in each can help you prevent them from exploiting your business. Here are the two most prevalent executive phishing attacks that threat actors use.

The phishing attack

Phishing attacks cast a wide net to exploit victims. Phishing attacks impersonate large and well-established brands and are typically deployed using emails or messages sent to many individual users. Less targeted than spear-phishing attacks, phishing campaigns commonly target victims indiscriminately. Ultimately, if a threat actor can get one or a handful of users to pass along confidential information, they’ve carried out a successful phishing attack.

The spear phishing attack

While phishing campaigns attempt to exploit a large group of individuals, spear phishing attacks look to compromise specific individuals. Gleaning as much information as they can about an individual from online resources, threat actors send personalized messages to targeted users. Unlike phishing attacks, these email correspondences don’t contain malicious links or attachments, making them more difficult to detect.

Spear phishing attacks are often financially motivated and aim to exploit victims into divulging compromising information or completing a specific action that can result in financial losses, data breaches, compromised accounts, and more.

How to prevent executive phishing

Protecting against executive phishing attacks requires the right processes and tools. Here are some best practices your organization should adopt to protect against executive phishing attacks.

Train employees to spot executive phishing

Executive phishing attempts often rely on similar tactics that can make them easier to diagnose. This includes pretexting—a social engineering scheme to establish rapport with the intended victim—creating a sense of urgency, or more. By training your employees to spot and appropriately handle these types of messages, you can minimize the likelihood of a successful attack.

Executive phishing - how to prevent it and employee training

While user awareness training remains an important safeguard, not all programs provide equal benefits. For the best outcomes, substitute classroom-based instruction and generic simulations with personalized and automated phishing training.

Minimize spam with DMARC

Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) is an email authentication protocol that can prevent unwanted parties from sending spam or phishing emails to an organization. It enables companies to publish a DMARC policy into a Domain Name System (DNS) record, thus establishing a policy for how to handle emails that fail two other authentication protocols: Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM).

Adopt AI-threat detection and response technology

Cyberthreats will continually evolve. As hackers introduce new techniques, your organization needs the protection to keep pace.

Unlike traditional email security solutions, AI-threat detection and response solutions can detect and neutralize executive phishing threats. While not all solutions provide equal value, those that provide anti-spear-phishing capabilities use Natural Language Processing algorithms to detect text-based threats and display a warning banner that alerts users of a potential spear-phishing attack. It’s also important for solutions to provide native protection for your internal environment, as executive phishing schemes often occur as part of insider attacks.

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