May 23, 2011, 6:11 AM — Last year, a senior executive in charge of customer satisfaction at his company opened an email with the subject "customer complaint" that appeared to be sent from the Better Business Bureau. He followed a link to see details of the complaint. "If he had stopped to examine the URL carefully, he would have seen that it was a trap" -- known as a whaling attack and based on spear-phishing techniques -- intended to gather information about the company, says Jonathan Gossels, president of SystemExperts, a security consulting firm. "But during a busy work day, that hardly happens."
In another recent case, an attacker researched the background of a systems administrator, then sent him an email about a reduced premium health care plan for families of four or more. This appealed to the administrator, who has five children, and enticed him to open the attached form. The form had embedded malware that compromised the target's computer and gave the attacker a foothold into his corporate network. It also allowed the attacker to impersonate the administrator and garner sensitive information about the company's operations, says Rohyt Belani, CEO of Intrepidus Group, a security consulting and training firm.
[ Master your security with InfoWorld's interactive Security iGuide and our Deep Dive PDF guides on browser security, Windows 7 security, and malware defense. | Stay up to date on the latest security developments with InfoWorld's Security Central newsletter. ]
These whaling attacks are a form of personalized phishing, or spear phishing, aimed at senior executives or others in an organization who have access to lots of valuable or competitive information. While phishers generally go after consumers for bank account data, passwords, credit card numbers, and the like for financial gain, whalers most often target people who have inside information or can provide ongoing access to systems. Thus, the cost of being harpooned can be huge.