The FBI today warned about a significant spike in victims and dollar losses stemming from an increasingly common scam in which crooks spoof communications from executives at the victim firm in a bid to initiate unauthorized international wire transfers. According to the FBI, thieves stole nearly $750 million in such scams from more than 7,000 victim companies in the U.S. between October 2013 and August 2015.
In January 2015, the FBI released stats showing that between Oct. 1, 2013 and Dec. 1, 2014, some 1,198 companies lost a total of $179 million in so-called business e-mail compromise (BEC) scams, also known as “CEO fraud.” The latest figures show a marked 270 percent increase in identified victims and exposed losses. Taking into account international victims, the losses from BEC scams total more than $1.2 billion, the FBI said.
“The scam has been reported in all 50 states and in 79 countries,” the FBI’s alert notes. “Fraudulent transfers have been reported going to 72 countries; however, the majority of the transfers are going to Asian banks located within China and Hong Kong.”
CEO fraud usually begins with the thieves either phishing an executive and gaining access to that individual’s inbox, or emailing employees from a look-alike domain name that is one or two letters off from the target company’s true domain name. For example, if the target company’s domain was “example.com” the thieves might register “examp1e.com” (substituting the letter “L” for the numeral 1) or “example.co,” and send messages from that domain.
Unlike traditional phishing scams, spoofed emails used in CEO fraud schemes are unlikely to set off spam traps, because these are targeted phishing scams that are not mass e-mailed. Also, the crooks behind them take the time to understand the target organization’s relationships, activities, interests and travel and/or purchasing plans.
They do this by scraping employee email addresses and other information from the target’s Web site to help make the missives more convincing. In the case where executives or employees have their inboxes compromised by the thieves, the crooks will scour the victim’s email correspondence for certain words that might reveal whether the company routinely deals with wire transfers — searching for messages with key words like “invoice,” “deposit” and “president.”
On the surface, business email compromise scams may seem unsophisticated relative to moneymaking schemes that involve complex malicious software, such as Dyre and ZeuS. But in many ways, the BEC attack is more versatile and adept at sidestepping basic security strategies used by banks and their customers to minimize risks associated with account takeovers. In traditional phishing scams, the attackers interact with the victim’s bank directly, but in the BEC scam the crooks trick the victim into doing that for them.
In these cases, the fraudsters will forge the sender’s email address displayed to the recipient, so that the email appears to be coming from example.com. In all cases, however, the “reply-to” address is the spoofed domain (e.g. examp1e.com), ensuring that any replies are sent to the fraudster.
The FBI’s numbers would seem to indicate that the average loss per victim is around $100,000. That may be so, but some of the BEC swindles I’ve written about thus far have involved much higher amounts. Earlier this month, tech firm Ubiquiti Networks disclosed in a quarterly financial report that it suffered a whopping $46.7 million hit because of a BEC scam.
In February, con artists made off with $17.2 million from one of Omaha, Nebraska’s oldest companies — The Scoular Co., an employee-owned commodities trader. According to Omaha.com, an executive with the 800-employee company wired the money in installments last summer to a bank in China after receiving emails ordering him to do so.
In March 2015, I posted the story Spoofing the Boss Turns Thieves a Tidy Profit, which recounted the nightmarish experience of an Ohio manufacturing firm that came within a whisker of losing $315,000 after an employee received an email she thought was from her boss asking her to wire the money to China to pay for some raw materials.
The FBI urges businesses to adopt two-step or two-factor authentication for email, where available, and/or to establish other communication channels — such as telephone calls — to verify significant transactions. Businesses are also advised to exercise restraint when publishing information about employee activities on their Web sites or through social media, as attackers perpetrating these schemes often will try to discover information about when executives at the targeted organization will be traveling or otherwise out of the office.
Consumers are not immune from these types of scams. According to a related advisory posted the FBI today, in the three months between April 1, 2015 and June 30, 2015, the agency received 21 complaints from consumers who suffered losses of nearly $700,000 after having their inboxes hijacked or spoofed by thieves. The FBI said it identified approximately $14 million in attempted losses associated with open FBI investigations into such crimes against consumers.