C-Suite Cyber Attacks: How to Prevent Being a Victim

cybersecurity for C-Suite executives
July 13, 2023

Cybersecurity is a familiar topic, but one subcategory that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the targeting of C-Suite executives. While all companies are at risk of cyber-attacks, executives face their own unique set of threats. Here are some examples of attacks every leader should be aware of and tips to decrease the likelihood that you will fall victim to these cyber crimes.

Whaling: Catching the Big One

What is it?

Whaling attacks are considered part of the spear phishing category of cyber-attacks. This highly targeted attack is usually sent via email and is designed to encourage a C-suite executive to perform an action such as providing personal or company information or money.

How Does it Work?

Cyber-criminals take time to research the victim and their business through social media, web searches, and even their company website. Unlike regular phishing emails that contain typos or more obvious suspicious content, whaling emails are created to be more sophisticated in tone and language for their executive recipient. Through spoofing, whaling emails appear to come from a trusted source and include personalized information about the company or individual; specific corporate or industry terminology; and may mention real legal, banking, or vendor relationships to create a level of false security.

Often, whaling emails convey a sense of urgency for the recipient to perform an action that may include clicking on a link, transferring money, or divulging business or personal data that could lead to future attacks.

Why Does it Work?

We all like to think that we can quickly identify a phishing scam. The reality is that most executives have demanding schedules and are juggling calls, meetings, requests, and countless emails. It’s easier than you think to click a link or scan an email while distracted by other things, especially when the line between legitimate and suspicious are so blurry.

CEO Fraud

What is it?

CEO Fraud is a highly effective tactic where a cybercriminal assumes the persona of a CEO and uses it to communicate via email or text to the CEO’s own employees.

How Does it Work?

The goal of CEO Fraud is to leverage an executive leader’s identity to deceive a lower-level employee into providing personal or business data or money. Like whaling, spoofing software is used to send an email or text message that appears to be sent from the CEO to trick employees into a secondary action like access to confidential data, transferring money, or clicking a link to malware, etc.

In addition to researching both the executive and the employee (s), attackers may even utilize more brazen social engineering tactics. These methods could include the criminal engaging either in person or on the phone with your business, pretending to be a vendor, potential new hire, or customer. Cyber criminals will do anything to gain more information that can be used against you.

Why Does it Work

Criminals are counting on human nature to take over. The reason CEO Fraud works so well is because employees who receive a request from their CEO aren’t likely to question it. Even when red flags are present, many employees ignore them for fear of being reprimanded or not following instructions.

Prevention of C-Suite Targeting

The best defense against cybercrime is taking action before an attack is launched. Proactive preparedness and ongoing vigilance are critical. Cybersecurity is not a once-and-done exercise. Working with a Managed Service Provider (MSP) can help you bridge any existing gaps between current security and desired security. Below are some prevention tips that can save you from costly consequences and ones that can easily be implemented by a qualified MSP.

  • Train your employees on phishing campaigns multiple times throughout the year.
  • Create and follow processes and procedures that require authorization of financial transactions, editing of payment details, etc.
  • Implement multi-factor authentication
  • Conduct regular security assessments to identify areas of vulnerability
  • Run periodic penetration testing to validate systems and controls
  • Create a culture that encourages employees to report requests that seem unusual

Next Steps

As a C-suite executive, you not only face your own cyber targeting but the challenge of protecting your company and employees. In today’s business environment, nothing provides 100% protection against cybercrime, but there are steps you can and should take to significantly lower and manage your risks.

SN’s cyber experts conduct security assessments, as well as vulnerability/pen testing for companies nationally, prioritizing the protection of your data. Increase your confidence and peace of mind with a complimentary consultation with an SN cyber security expert. Reach out to us today to get started.

Phil Keeney - Stambaugh Ness