A recently uncovered spear phishing campaign, orchestrated by the PerSwaysion group, targeting 150+ executives across the globe, is a prime example of the growing trend of concerted cyber attacks on CXOs and VIPs. This process of targeted attacks on VIPs is commonly known as Whaling. Whaling tactics are similar to general spear-phishing. But they differ in the fact that it specifically targets high-level and important individuals within an organization.
Threat actors are slowly moving from large-scale, low-value attacks, which target a general population, to small-scale, high-value attacks, which target the key personnel of an organization. Furthermore, the Verizon 2019 Data Breach Report found that senior executives are 12 times more likely to be targets of social incidents, and 9 times more likely to be targets of social breaches. This is because high-profile personnel have exclusive clearances, privileges, and access to:
- Confidential and sensitive information including financials, trade secrets etc.
- Authorize or order other employees in the organization to carry out certain tasks.
- Valuable assets including networks, devices, and facilities.
How do threat actors target C-level executives?
Research and reconnaissance
- To orchestrate a typical attack, threat actors perform extensive reconnaissance and research, to understand an organization’s structure and functions.
- Using this information, they narrow down the list of potential targets and their associates.
- They then collect personal information about the shortlisted VIPs. Most companies publish their executives’ details on social media, news media, and their own websites. Thus, a simple Google search will give the threat actor access to this information. Moreover, the executives themselves have personal accounts on platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn. And often, the privacy settings on these accounts are lax.
- They further search for exposed account credentials from previous data leaks. Given that most of us, executives being no exception, use the same password for multiple accounts, the exposed credentials can be used to gain access to the executive’s official email account.
Data theft attacks
- Once hackers have obtained access to C-suite executives accounts, through brute-force attacks or other means, they steal valuable information. This may include client lists, customer data, financial data, internal processes, business strategy and plan, and more.
- Threat actors could hijack executives’ social media accounts and post harmful messages. And, this could tarnish the reputation of the executive and their organization.
- Using the email access, threat actors decipher the communication frequencies and styles within the organization. For example: If there is a trail of audit related emails, threat actors can send requests for audit related details in continuation to the ongoing communication.
- If threats actors cannot get access to an executives’ credentials, they create fake email IDs. These email IDs closely resemble one of the executives’ email IDs or that of the HR department or Accounting department. From the fake ID they send an urgent, actionable, and believable email to a C-level executive.
- Threat actors bank on executives having limited time, or relying on assistants, to read and respond to emails. They also ensure the emails are believable. For this, they add references to the executive’s interests and hobbies, which are gleaned from their social media profiles. The emails usually request the email recipient, who is also an executive or VIP, for sensitive information, wire transfers, or to download an attachment.
- If the recipient falls for the trap, they will end up revealing sensitive information or authorizing someone else to do so. They could also authorize transfers to the fake account details shared by the threat actor. A malicious attachment could drop a malware or ransomware payload in their systems. The recent PerSwaysion campaign used a fake Microsoft Outlook login page, from where they were able to collect 150+ executives’ login credentials. The credentials can be used to orchestrate other attacks or could be sold on the Dark Web, to the highest bidder.
How to protect C-level executives from these attacks?
Given the heightened risk to VIPs, here are a few measures to combat and mitigate threats:
Deploy a real-time monitoring tool that will scour the internet – surface web, deep web, and dark web – for potential threats. A comprehensive SaaS platform such as CloudSEK’s XVigil tracks VIP’s personal email IDs for their presence in past security breaches. Organizations are alerted to such threats immediately, along with other significant details pertaining to the risk.
Review social media presence
Ensure the executives’ social media accounts have the highest level of privacy. Report duplicate accounts and delete dormant accounts on a regular basis.
Enable Multi Factor Authentication (MFA) for all their accounts, including email, company assets and network.
Regular cybersecurity refreshers
Since threat actors are constantly changing and upgrading their whaling tactics and ruses, periodic training will help executives spot and avoid such traps.
An attack on a VIP doesn’t just affect them personally, it also affects their organizations revenue and brand image. Threat actors could gain access to the company’s central database, and steal employee and customer details, and leak them or even sell them. It takes years of painstaking effort to build a company’s brand image, and any damage to this intangible asset can have very serious and far-reaching consequences. Hence it is important to enable processes, and tools such as XVigil, to continuously monitor and protect VIPs and their organizations.