Business Email Compromise: A Bigger Threat than Ransomware?
The large-scale attacks that have become defining characteristics of 2017 have given rise to stronger defenses across the enterprise. Forced to adapt in response, more adversaries are recognizing that bypassing these defenses to generate illicit funds is sometimes best achieved through less-sophisticated — yet lucrative — schemes like Business Email Compromise (BEC).
In fact, the Cisco 2017 Midyear Cybersecurity Report reinforces and expands upon these observations. Featuring contributions from Flashpoint Senior Malware Analyst Ronnie Tokazowski, the report emphasizes that BEC — despite its relatively low profile — may be an even bigger threat than ransomware. As a Cisco technology partner, we were honored to have Ronnie’s research on BEC highlighted within the report, which aims to provide actionable measures for defenders based on threat intelligence and cybersecurity trends for 2017.
We sat down with Ronnie to learn more about his research and expertise in BEC. Here’s what we discussed:
Q: How does a BEC scam work?
A: Typically, BEC scams begin with a “spoofed” email — often appearing as if sent from a high-level executive to an employee at the same organization. The email will usually order the employee to wire a large sum of money to a foreign account; and if the employee complies, the money is lost. Some BEC attackers have also been known to target victims using “romance” scams by fooling them into opening bank accounts for online “lovers.” Others closely overlap with lottery, employment, real estate, and most recently, W-2 scams.
Q: According to the Cisco 2017 Midyear Cybersecurity Report, BEC is the costliest type of cybercrime. Why does it receive so much less attention than other threats?
A: One of the main reasons why BEC scams don’t get as much attention is because of how challenging it can to determine who — on the victim side — is at fault. Are the banks to blame for letting the money transfers go through? Are organizations to blame for not training their users effectively? Are victims of “romance” scams at fault for falling in love? Unlike with malware attacks — which often occur when a user is lured into clicking a malicious link or downloading a malicious attachment from a phishing email — no single entity is at fault when an attempted BEC scam becomes a successful BEC scam.
In terms of news coverage, BEC tends to keep a low profile. We don’t hear more about BEC scams in the media most likely because they’ve been around for years, aren’t advanced or sophisticated, and doesn’t sound all that newsworthy — especially compared to the plethora of ransomware and other attacks yielding global damages that spill over into the physical realm.
For example, take these two headlines:
“User at company x wired money out” versus “Ransomware attack encrypts hospital systems, putting lives at risk.”
Which one is more enticing?
Q: Some of the world’s largest organizations with the most advanced security protections have fallen victim to BEC. Why is that?
A: BEC is definitely one of the lower tech scams out there. What makes BEC unique and particularly challenging for security teams is that it typically does not use malware. Since most organizations’ network solutions are designed to detect malicious emails that do contain malware, BEC emails typically land right in users’ inboxes. When this happens, it’s up to the user to determine whether they are going to act on it.
Q: How have BEC scams evolved in recent years?
A: The messaging and social engineering tactics used in BEC scams have changed very little over the years — most actors are still able to steal money by using the same “can you wire money” story. The biggest shift has been the ability for attackers to target W2 information as well, which has been exploding over the last few years. Once the W2 data is stolen, attackers either sell it it on the Deep & Dark Web or use it to commit tax fraud. A single W2 can allow an attacker to extract thousands of dollars from the IRS — not to mention the serious financial and reputational damage it can cause to organizations and their employees.
Q: What can organizations and individuals do to avoid becoming victims of BEC?
A: One of the best ways to help protect organizations from this type of attack is to work with users and inform them of the threat. If an employee does not typically do wire transfers, why would a CEO ask them to? It’s crucial for users to recognize that any such situation could potentially be an attempted BEC scam — this is why education and awareness are always key. In addition, organizations could also consider implementing a measure called sender policy framework (SPF) that may help identify spooked emails.
Additional information on Business Email Compromise (BEC) and mitigation strategies is available in the Cisco 2017 Midyear Cybersecurity Report. Access it here.