Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware

Andrew Froehlich, Network Engineer & IT Consultant | 7/10/2013 | 17 comments

Andrew Froehlich
Are you a whale? Are you the kind of gambler casinos lavish free rooms, exquisite meals, and VIP perks on?

Probably not. But if hackers did the same thing, you'd probably be sitting in the penthouse right now. Worse yet, someone in your enterprise is a whale, and they don't even know it. Smart hackers are changing the way they aim malware and enterprises need to make users aware.

Until recently, most contemporary malware was designed so it could infect the greatest number of people, regardless of who they were. This is known as the shotgun approach to malware. The problem with that method is that IT security and end-user training is beginning to erode the effectiveness of this approach. Malware has to entice victims into performing an action so the malware can be installed on their computer. This can be in the form of an email attachment, instant message, or website link. The communications are very generic in nature, often contain grammar mistakes, and have an overall unpolished feel to them. And once people are trained to detect these telltale signs, most malware and generic phishing attempts are fairly easy to spot, rendering the hackers' campaign useless.

Because of this, cyber criminals are catching only small fish in an ever-shrinking smaller pool. This is forcing a change in tactics to the point where criminals are now beginning to put malware into very sophisticated and convincing packages to attract a whale or two.

These targeted malware campaigns -- also referred to as spear phishing -- are designed to go after a specific person or organization. Cyber criminals now spend a great deal of time researching their whales and mine information like place of work, job title, names of individuals they interact with, and the names of business partners. Using this acquired information, a believable tale is woven into traditional email, website, or instant message formats. This message contains enough personal information that it becomes difficult for the whale not to believe it. And before you know it, the whale hands over everything that the criminal is looking for. It's not so much that the malware itself is getting more sophisticated, but the spear phishing presentation used to trick the victim certainly is.

Of course, spear phishing isn't new, but the targets and tactics are evolving, and most users who might have known to not give away their banks account numbers at home may be handing over sensitive information in an enterprise setting due to lack of training and awareness. One of the biggest challenges that enterprise security administrators face is convincing employees that they are likely considered whales.

Administrative assistants, accountants, salesmen, IT managers, and pretty much everyone else in an enterprise hold a great deal of company knowledge that criminals can use to ultimately unlock a company's secrets. This information can then be used to either commit wire fraud or to steal intellectual property.

Social networking has made it infinitely easier to gather personal information that can be used against us in a spear phishing attack. Public profile information on Facebook and LinkedIn are commonly used to gain information about the targets. Then, blog and Twitter posts are used to understand what the target's thoughts, feelings, and interests are in a wide range of areas. Essentially, the more you put out there, the easier a target you become.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't allow your employees or enterprise to have a public presence on the Internet. But beyond simply explaining the threat to them, ask your staff to take a step back to see what information a cyber criminal can easily dig up. This may sound completely narcissistic to them, but I recommend you ask them to "Google" themselves from time to time in order to see what pops up in search results. It's important that when they do this, they make sure to log out of social networking accounts first. By doing so, they are able to see the same information that anyone else would see while doing a search. The idea is to familiarize one's self with what is public knowledge -- so you aren't caught off guard when it's used to gain your trust.

Even though you aren't likely to be considered a "whale" by Las Vegas casino standards, you and your staff need to understand that your position within a large organization probably makes you a pretty big fish in the eyes of a cyber criminal. Enterprise organizations control huge amounts of capital and intellectual property -- both of which are highly sought by organized crime syndicates that use targeted malware attacks. And in order to help combat against these attempts, your best bet is to try and see what a hacker can see on the Internet so it can't be used against you.

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Kerstin Carson   Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware   7/31/2013 2:48:04 AM
Re: Hunting for the Biggest Whale
Great article, Andrew. I'd never heard of whales before reading.

Like most people, I am familiar with the malware associated with "those emails" we're all too familiar with that you described. Links to bogus websites – prompting the user to triple check the fake URL against the one normally used – was another tip I needed to use to avoid volunteering my info to the wrong person. Lately, I've been having to deal with very believable emails from accounts of friends asking me for money (so I guess my friends' accounts are hacked into as a starting point?).

There's so much anti-hacking info to absorb, but it's worth it. When I think about whales, I'm not sure how much of a target I'd be considering my profession, but at the same time it'd be naïve to think I wouldn't be make a mark just because spear phishing is geared towards larger targets.
adil   Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware   7/28/2013 6:11:21 AM
Re: targeting whales easier than before
I think the hackers will be more interested in my credit card number or my other financial information stored on my computer, rather they would be trying to steal my identity. I am not sure what they will do with it. You are right what ever we do or store online, is being collected by someone, the only thing we can do it to trust.
SunitaT   Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware   7/28/2013 4:46:23 AM
Re : Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware
The inventor's new malware is called KINS, and he's selling it for $5,000 a pop, although that price is likely to increase if the malware is a good as he brags it is. KINS is a new professional-grade banking Trojan that is taking its first steps in the cybercrime underground and could be poised to infect new victims as rapidly and efficiently as its Zeus, SpyEye and Citadel predecessors.
kstaron   Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware   7/26/2013 5:59:48 PM
Specific strategies?
It's unnerving how sophisticated some malware is getting now. Especially with how much information is readily available. Beyond telling employees to not send anything critical in an email, what specific strategies are there to spot spear fishing and prevent this kind of malware?
eethtworkz   Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware   7/16/2013 2:37:22 PM
Re: targeting whales easier than before

Have you experimented with the Collusion Plugin from Firefox?

Amazing piece of work-You know exactly who is using your information and to who all are they passing it over.

Brilliant,Brilliant piece of Engineering!

Highly Recommeded!

stotheco   Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware   7/16/2013 2:11:15 AM
Re: red flags
I agree with Geeky. Hackers are smart, sharp, and sophisticated. In order to beat them at their own game, you have to know (or learn) how to think like them so you can anticipate their move, hopefully be a few steps ahead of them.
stotheco   Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware   7/16/2013 2:10:28 AM
Re: targeting whales easier than before
Some people assume that privacy settings really keep their information private. Others simply don't care. The problem is that all this data is going somewhere. And someone out there might be collecting everything to use against you or to steal your stuff or identity. 
Andrew Froehlich   Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware   7/11/2013 1:43:49 PM
Re: be careful...
@Sara - I'm also partial to Belugas. They're really cute! :)
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Andrew Froehlich   Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware   7/11/2013 1:38:35 PM
Re: targeting whales easier than before
@ProgMan - You may be right. Seeking out whales is a fairly new fad and the jury is still out on how successful it actually is. But I think that if it's done correctly, it can work. We all have to stay on our toes and our first reaction must always to reject any request for information.
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eethtworkz   Hunting for 'Whales' Using Targeted Malware   7/11/2013 8:06:40 AM
Re: targeting whales easier than before

Fascinating story you pointed out here.

Its beyond true that too many people are too casual about the kind (&Quality) of information they post about themselves online.

Its really sad when that Information then gets used for all kinds of nefarious activities.

I also came across some Technical Developments that have a massive potential to change Pairing based and by extension PKI today.

One part of me says Fascinating Development;the other part of me groans in Agony simply because it means the Current PKI is now obsolete(or will be in another year or so).


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