Whaling: How Cybercriminals Weaponize Social Engineering

August 30, 2023

Cybercriminals have become adept at exploiting human psychology through social engineering, the increasingly sophisticated practice of manipulating individuals to divulge confidential information or take actions that jeopardize security. One particularly potent threat in this evolving landscape is whalingphishing, or simply “whaling,” characterized by its precision and sophistication, posing heightened risks, particularly for high-profile individuals and organizations.  

Common Social Engineering Attack Methods

Phishing and Spear Phishing

Phishing remains the go-to tactic for cybercriminals. Per Fortinet’s 2023 Global Ransomware Report, “phishing emails were the number one method respondents reported ransomware actors used to gain entry.1” This is primarily due to the relative ease and effectiveness of phishing attacks. Cybercriminals can cast a wide net, distributing generic phishing emails to hundreds of thousands of emails (or more). One successful attack can be highly lucrative for cybercriminals, reaching into the tens of millions of dollars. 

Spear phishing takes this further by customizing the attack for specific targets. The attacker carefully researches the victim, tailoring the phishing message to appear highly credible. For instance, they might impersonate a colleague, boss, or even a family member, making it more likely for the victim to fall for the scam. 


Baiting involves offering something enticing to the victim in exchange for sensitive information or access. This might include leaving a USB drive loaded with malware in a public place labeled “Employee Salary Details” or “Layoff Plan.” Curiosity often gets the better of people, leading them to plug the USB into their computers, unwittingly infecting their systems.


Tailgating is gaining unauthorized physical access to a secure area by following an authorized person. This tactic capitalizes on trust and social norms. An attacker might hold the door open for someone with legitimate access, gaining entry without arousing suspicion. Once inside, they can then engage in various nefarious activities.


While not a traditional social engineering technique, malware often plays a central role in these attacks. Malicious software can be delivered via phishing emails, infected downloads, or even tailgating attacks. Once on a system, it can record keystrokes, steal data, or grant remote control to the attacker.

Whaling Phishing – Characteristics

One specific form of phishing that has gained popularity is whaling. Whaling is a highly targeted form of social engineering focusing on high-profile targets or “whales.” Targets may include top executives or influential individuals within organizations with significant authority or access to valuable resources. Here are some key characteristics of whaling phishing:

Precision Targeting

Whaling attacks are meticulously planned. Attackers invest time researching their targets, gathering information from public sources and social media to craft convincing messages. They aim to exploit the target’s role, responsibilities, and connections.

Spear-Phishing Tactics

Whaling phishing employs spear-phishing techniques but with a higher level of sophistication. Attackers often impersonate trusted colleagues, vendors, or partners, making it challenging for the target to discern the scam.

Urgent and High-Stakes Scenarios

Whaling messages frequently create a sense of urgency or high-stakes situations. They might claim that an important deal is at risk or that a critical security issue requires immediate action. This pressure can prompt targets to act hastily without verifying the authenticity of the communication.

Tailored Content

The content of messages is tailored to the target’s role and responsibilities. For instance, an attacker targeting a CEO might use language that pertains to financial matters, while an attack on a CTO might involve discussions of technology and security.

Dangers and Consequences of Whaling 

Whaling phishing poses significant dangers and consequences, both to individuals and organizations. These factors make building an incident response plan and team more important than ever

Financial Losses:

Successful whaling attacks can lead to substantial financial losses. Attackers might gain access to sensitive financial information, initiate fraudulent transactions, or trick targets into wiring money to bogus accounts.

Reputation Damage:

For individuals, falling victim to a whaling attack can tarnish their reputation and credibility. In the corporate world, a successful whaling attack can damage an organization’s reputation, eroding trust with customers, partners, and shareholders.

Data Breaches:

Whaling attacks often result in data breaches, which can have far-reaching consequences. Stolen intellectual property, sensitive customer data, or proprietary information can end up in the wrong hands, potentially leading to competitive disadvantages or legal repercussions. This can be especially damaging for mid-sized enterprises. 

Operational Disruption:

When high-ranking executives or key personnel are compromised, it can disrupt an organization’s operations. This can include decision-making delays, leadership confusion, and potential misdirection of resources.

Legal and Regulatory Consequences:

Data breaches and compromised sensitive information can lead to legal and regulatory consequences. Organizations may face fines, legal action, and the loss of customer trust due to inadequate security measures.

Your Cybersecurity Partner

Whether you want to learn more about combating the top threats to digital workspaces or how the human factor is critical to cybersecurity, Dewpoint’s experts are here to guide your security efforts. A great place to start is a CIS Security Assessment to baseline your organization’s security risk profile against standard security controls. Chat with an expert today. 

Still not sure? Take our security quiz today to see how your security posture rates!


1 Fortinet

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