What Is CEO Fraud?

CEO Fraud is a scam in which cybercriminals spoof company email accounts and impersonate executives to try and fool an employee in accounting or HR into executing unauthorized wire transfers, or sending out confidential tax information.

The FBI calls this type of scam “Business Email Compromise” and defines BEC as “a sophisticated scam targeting businesses working with foreign suppliers and/or businesses that regularly perform wire transfer payments. The scam is carried out by compromising legitimate business e-mail accounts through social engineering or computer intrusion techniques to conduct unauthorized transfers of funds.”

According to FBI statistics, CEO fraud is now a $12 billion scam. Between December 2016 and May 2018, there was a 136% increase in identified global exposed losses. The scam has been reported in all 50 states and in 150 countries. Victim complaints filed with the IC3 and financial sources indicate fraudulent transfers have been sent to 115 countries.

Four Attack Methods

Understanding the different attack vectors for this type of crime is key when it comes to prevention. This is how the bad guys do it:

1. Executive Whaling

Here, the bad guys target top executives and administrators, typically to siphon off money from accounts or steal confidential data. Personalization and detailed knowledge of the executive and the business are the hallmarks of this type of fraud.

2. Spear Phishing

This is a much more focused form of phishing. The cybercriminal has either studied up on the group or has gleaned data from social media sites to con users. The email generally goes to one person or a small group of people who use that bank or service. Some form of personalization is included – perhaps the person’s name, or the name of a client.

3. Phishing

Phishing emails are sent to large numbers of users simultaneously in an attempt to “fish” sensitive information by posing as reputable sources—often with legitimate-looking logos attached. Banks, credit card providers, delivery firms, law enforcement, and the IRS are a few of the common ones. A phishing campaign typically shoots out emails to huge numbers of users. Most of them are to people who don’t use that bank, for example, but by sheer weight of numbers, these emails arrive at a certain percentage of likely candidates.

4. Social Engineering

Within a security context, social engineering means the use of psychological manipulation to trick people into divulging confidential information or providing access to funds. The art of social engineering might include mining information from social media sites. LinkedIn, Facebook and other venues provide a wealth of information about organizational personnel. This can include their contact information, connections, friends, ongoing business deals and more.

5 Common Attack Scenarios

  1. Business working with a foreign supplier: This scam takes advantage of a long-standing wire-transfer relationship with a supplier, but asks for the funds to be sent to a different account.
  2. Business receiving or initiating a wire transfer request: By compromising and/or spoofing the email accounts of top executives, another employee receives a message to transfer funds somewhere, or a financial institution receives a request from the company to send funds to another account. These requests appear genuine as they come from the correct email address.
  3. Business contacts receiving fraudulent correspondence: By taking over an employee’s email account and sending invoices out to company suppliers, money is transferred to bogus accounts.
  4. Executive and attorney impersonation: The fraudsters pretend to be lawyers or executives dealing with confidential and time-sensitive matters.
  5. Data theft: Fraudulent emails request either all wage or tax statement (W-2) forms or a company list of personally identifiable information (PII). These come from compromised and/or spoofed executive email accounts and are sent to the HR department, accounts or auditing departments.

Who Are The Main Targets?

The CEO isn’t always the one in a criminal’s cross hairs. There are four other groups of employees considered valuable targets given their roles and access to funds/information:

Finance

The finance department is especially vulnerable in companies that regularly engage in large wire transfers. All too often, sloppy internal policies only demand an email from the CEO or other senior person to initiate the transfer. Cybercriminals usually gain entry via phishing, spend a few months doing recon and formulate a plan. They mirror the usual wire transfer authorization protocols, hijack a relevant email account and send the request to the appropriate person in finance to transmit the funds. As well as the CFO, this might be anyone in accounts that is authorized to transfer funds.

HR

Human Resources represents a wonderfully open highway into the modern enterprise. After all, it has access to every person in the organization, manages the employee database and is in charge of recruitment. As such, a major function is to open résumés from thousands of potential applicants. All the cybercriminals need to do is include spyware inside a résumé and they can surreptitiously begin their early data gathering activities. In addition, W2 and PII scams have become more commonplace. HR receives requests from spoofed emails and ends up sending employee information such as social security numbers and employee email addresses to criminal organizations.

Executive Team

Every member of the executive team can be considered a high-value target. Many possess some kind of financial authority. If their email accounts are hacked, it generally provides cybercriminals access to all kinds of confidential information, not to mention intelligence on the type of deals that may be ongoing. Thus executive accounts must receive particular attention from a security perspective.

IT

The IT manager and IT personnel with authority over access controls, password management and email accounts are further high-value targets. If their credentials can be hacked, they gain entry to every part of the organization.

Do Your Employees Know When NOT To Click?

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