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Security Vendors Report Uptick in Whaling, Phishing Scams

Expect to see an increase in attempts by cyber crooks to trick businesses and individuals to part with their money say Mimecast, Kaspersky Labs.

One of the biggest online security threats to individuals and businesses this holiday season is not from sophisticated new malware tools but decidedly low-tech phishing and whaling campaigns.

Separate alerts from security vendors Kaspersky Labs and Mimecast this week warned about an increase in both forms of criminal activity in recent weeks and urged users to take precautions to mitigate their risk of becoming the next victims.

Mimecast said it has noticed a recent uptick in the number of whaling, or spear-phishing campaigns directed at business executives at mostly large corporations. The goal behind these campaigns is to trick financial staff into making fraudulent wire transfers to bank accounts controlled by threat actors, the company said.

The campaigns typically involve emails that purport to be from the CEO, chief financial officer or other senior executive to an individual within the firm with the authority to make wire transfers on behalf of the organization. Often, the messages contain language that conveys a sense of urgency to get the recipient to act quickly in response to the email.

“Cyber-attackers have gained sophistication, capability and bravado over the recent years resulting in some complex and well-executed attacks,” Mimecast said in its advisory. “But some of the most successful threat activity remains relatively basic and uses simple social engineering to dupe targets,” it said.

Whaling campaigns often involve considerable research beforehand by threat actors who scour social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to gather information about key executives at large organizations. Employees who have excessive information on their social media sites provide a particularly rich source of information to spear-phishers, Mimecast said.

The information gathered from these sites and other sources is then used to craft highly convincing emails. “Whaling is simple for hackers too, because they do not need to use malware or any technical expertise to exploit your organization,” Mimecast cautioned.  “As a result the barriers to entry for this type of cyber-crime are painfully low.”

The FBI, which calls such campaigns Business Email Compromise (BEC), earlier this year noted that as many as 7,000 US businesses have been victimized by such scams over the past two years, resulting in some $740 million in losses.

Employee awareness and education is key to protecting against the threat Mimecast said. Key executives and staff members from within the finance department need to be made aware of the scams and they need to be tested on a regular basis using simulated whaling attacks, the Mimecast advisory said.

Reviewing the finance team’s processes for initiating wire transfers and implementing and an additional layer of authentication for wire transfer can help as well, the company said.

Meanwhile, Kaspersky Labs in its alert Wednesday warned about an increase in phishing scams during the holiday season. People who buy online often get email notifications, shipment tracking alerts and other notices from the services that deliver their purchases, Kaspersky said.

Phishers often take advantage of this to send messages to victims that appear to originate from DHL and Fedex and try to get them to follow or click on malicious links and attachments, Kaspersky labs security researcher Andrey Kostin wrote in the blog post.