The FBI warned this summer that the “Business Email Compromise” (“BEC”) scam continues to grow, evolve, and target businesses of all sizes. As reported by the FBI in June, the scam had hit more than 22,000 victims for a combined dollar loss of greater than $3 billion – that’s billion with a B! And the latest evolution is even more threatening, potentially causing breaches of protected data.

What is the BEC scam? Why have so many been taken in? And how can you protect yourself?

The BEC scam is a smart, targeted scheme using emails that appear genuine, usually seeming to originate from within the victim’s company or from its suppliers/contractors. For example, the company’s CFO may receive an email that seems to come from the CEO, urgently directing funds to be wired to a specified account for a seemingly legitimate purpose. Or the email may appear to come from a supplier or contractor and seek payment on an invoice that appears legitimate. If the company wires funds as directed, the funds are transferred offshore and become unrecoverable.

The scam has been highly effective because BEC emails mimic legitimate requests. The perpetrators research their victim to learn its protocols, its counterparties’ names, its payment methods, etc. They often use social engineering techniques (e.g., phishing emails requesting info) to learn details about the targeted business. The successful perpetrators learn which individuals are necessary to perform wire transfers and what protocols are used. They may learn when the CEO is traveling, so that an email from the CEO directing payment would not be questioned. The perpetrator may have hacked and used a valid email account for this purpose, or may have established an account with a similar domain name. Their level of sophistication has enabled the theft of billions of dollars.

Earlier this year, the FBI started receiving reports that this highly successfully scheme has evolved into a means to obtain confidential information, leading to data breaches. For example, an email request to the human resources department may prompt the disclosure of W-2 forms or other confidential, personally identifiable information (“PII”). The FBI reports that victims have fallen for this new data-theft BEC scenario, even if they were able to successfully identify and avoid the traditional BEC scam.

We all have learned (hopefully) not to click links in suspicious looking emails. But trusted emails receive less scrutiny. What steps can you take to avoid being hit?

  • If an email is directing payment by wire or seeks protected information, it merits special treatment.
  • TRAIN employees and establish clear protocols for wire transfers and data privacy.
  • Beware of sudden changes in business practices. Require secondary sign-off by company personnel when a change in payment method is requested.
  • Always verify requested changes via other channels. Don’t click “reply”. Instead, call the sender to verify; and use a trusted phone number, not a phone number appearing in the email. Or forward the email to the sender after typing a trusted email address, and seek confirmation.
  • Be suspicious of requests for urgent action or secrecy.
  • Create intrusion detection system rules that flag e-mails with extensions that are similar to company e-mail.
  • In addition, diligently maintain data and email security. Educate employees to be alert to social engineering situations, and to delete phishing emails. Establish two-factor authentication for email accounts.