Over the past two years, cybercriminals have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from US businesses by compromising their official email accounts and using those accounts to initiate fraudulent wire transfers.
Between October 2013 and August 2015, over 7,000 US businesses were victimized by the so-called Business Email Compromise (BEC) scam and reported a staggering $748 million in actual and attempted losses, the FBI said in an alert issued late yesterday.
Around the world, another 1,113 companies reported similar incidents over the same period. The FBI estimated losses from these incidents at around $51 million.
The FBI alert described the scam as being primarily targeted at businesses that work with foreign suppliers and who regularly conduct wire transfer payments from the US to the foreign supplier. According to the FBI, BEC is a scam in which attackers try to gain access to a business email account belonging to a CFO, CTO, or some high-ranking executive using phishing and social engineering techniques.
In recent times, there has been an increase in the use of computer intrusion techniques to gain access to business email accounts, the FBI said. Many of these intrusions are initiated using sophisticated phishing scams in which victims are sent an email that appears to come from a legitimate source. When an unsuspecting user clicks on the malicious link attached to the email, it drops malware on the system that steals the victim’s data, including passwords and financial account information.
The attackers then use the compromised email account to send instructions to the company’s bank, or to someone with authority at the company to initiate a wire transfer request to a foreign bank account. Many of the fraudulent transfers at going to banks located with China and Hong Kong, the FBI said.
This week’s alert is the second one that the FBI has issued on the topic since January signaling its leveling of concern over the issue. The agency first sounded the alarm in January, when the FBI said it expected the number of victims and the total dollar loss for the scam to skyrocket.
"The BEC scam continues to grow and evolve and it targets businesses of all sizes," this week's FBI alert said. "There has been a 270 percent increase in identified victims and exposed loss since January 2015."
Between January and August, the FBI said it has seen a new tactic being used by attackers to try and pry loose sensitive data from business executives that they can use to initiate fake wire transfers. This tactic involves top executives being contacted by fraudsters posing as lawyers and legal representatives on some confidential or time-sensitive matter. Victims are pressured to act quickly or confidentially in transferring funds. Often, such scams happen at the end of a workday or work week, the FBI cautioned.
Another tactic used by attackers to trick companies into parting with their money is to send spoofed emails purportedly from a supplier requesting that funds for an invoice payment be sent to an alternate account.
The FBI has some recommendations for businesses that want to avoid becoming victims of the scam. Among that is the recommendation to create new intrusion detection system rules to flag emails with extensions that are similar to the company’s official email. "For example, legitimate e-mail ofabc_company.com would flag fraudulent e-mail of abc-company.com," the FBI said.
Similarly, the FBI encouraged businesses to register all company domains that are slightly different from the actual company name and to add a two-factor authentication mechanism to verify changes in vendor or supplier location.