Business Email Compromise Gets a New Twist

No longer are business email compromise scams just about getting organizations to send money; now some such attacks are sending fraudulent CEO emails to deliver malware payloads.

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Business email compromise (BEC) is a growing problem, as hackers are increasingly defrauding unsuspecting organizations into sending money. In a new twist, in BEC attacks uncovered by security firm Trustwave, emails that appear to be coming from corporate CEOs are now being used to deliver malware payloads as well.

"The malware payloads are a new element, whereas previous reports tend to point at either wire or information transfer scams," Phil Hay, a research manager at Trustwave, told eWEEK.

The FBI issued a public service announcement alert earlier this month warning of the dire consequences of BEC. According to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), $3.1 billion has been lost globally to BEC fraud.

The FBI defines BEC as an email-based scam, where attackers are able to trick businesses into making wire transfer payments that appear to be going toward legitimate business requests. The IC3 warned that it has seen a 1,300 percent increase in losses from BEC attacks since January 2015. Back on Jan. 22, 2015, the IC3 warned that BEC spam email campaigns had resulted in $215 million in losses.

While the primary motive of BEC today has been for direct financial fraud, Trustwave's newly discovered samples are not taking that approach. While is it possible that a BEC attack could attempt to defraud an organization and deliver malware at the same time, that's not what Trustwave is seeing. Hay said that the thrust of a BEC attack all depends on what the attacker wants to do.

"The wider point is that there are different groups behind the emails—some are into scams, others have jumped on the bandwagon and started using the CEO fraud technique to help distribute their malware or get the malware installed in the target organization," Hay said.

With the CEO fraud technique, attackers use a CEO's name and what appears to be a legitimate email to solicit some form of response from a targeted organization. The basic premise of the attack is that an employee of a targeted organization is not likely to ignore an email from the organization's CEO.

Trustwave is seeing samples of both regular BEC and CEO fraud hit its Secure Email Gateway Cloud platform as well as from submitted reports from Trustwave's on-premises customers.

"It's very widespread. We see new samples almost every day from a wide variety of customers," Hay said about BEC. "So while the scam emails are targeted to a particular company/CEO, the number of companies targeted at any one time appears to be very broad."

Trustwave has observed that companies often get repeat attacks, sometimes weeks or months after the initial one, according to Hay.

With the CEO fraud attack, malware is being delivered by way of a malicious file attachment. For years, security experts have told users not to click on attachments, yet it's still a problem.

"Despite the advice, some users are still clicking on attachments and links. The CEO fraud technique just makes it a bit more believable for an end user," Hay said.

There are some things that can be done to help mitigate BEC risks. Among the suggestions that Hay makes is that employees should be educated about BEC so they can spot potential scams. Additionally, for payment transfers there should be processes in place to verify payment authenticity. Standards for verifying email can also help, including the use Sender Policy Framework (SPF), SenderID and DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance).

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.