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Fighting Discipline with Discipline
When I meet with law enforcement officers, they often describe the growing sophistication of criminal groups that commit large-scale fraud. Just like legitimate enterprises, these global organizations follow a disciplined process to reach their business goals. As a successful salesperson follows specific steps from prospecting to closing, successful criminal enterprises follow defined steps that improve their chances of successfully executing financial crimes.
Let's take a look at a disciplined, five-step process that criminals generally follow to successfully execute a business email compromise (BEC) attack. The process can also apply to other types of cybercrimes, such as account takeover.
- Identify targets. Fraudsters scan specific industries to identify firms to attack. While firms handling real estate closings and trusts remain primary targets of BEC attempts, other businesses, across multiple industries, that have large-value accounts payable have increasingly become targets.
- Gain access. Fraudsters attempt a variety of methods to gain entry to the business accounting or IT system. With BEC, the most common way in is to get an employee to open an email or click on a link containing malware that will result in the compromise of the employee's log-in credentials. Another method is to exploit a security gap in the company's IT access control system. Social engineering is also becoming more frequent.
- Establish a foothold. Upon gaining access to the business records of the company, the fraudsters are likely to create hidden paths to enter and exit the company's systems without detection.
- Conduct surveillance. More and more often, fraudsters take their time monitoring the activity and records of the company, sometimes for months. Doing so helps them better understand the company's controls related to authorizing large-dollar-value transactions and customer records maintenance. When they eventually conduct their misdeed, they stay within normal controls and therefore don't set off any additional oversight.
- Steal and retreat. When the criminals have gained the necessary knowledge—by conducting their thorough, sometimes lengthy surveillance—they make a funds transfer request. In a BEC, this is generally an email from a senior official of the company to the finance department conveying some sense of urgency. In most cases, the request refers to a valid invoice or customer account number in an attempt to appear legitimate. Of course, the criminal controls the account that would receive the funds. If the request succeeds, the criminal may make additional funds transfer attempts. When they're done, they try to erase any evidence of their intrusion.
These sophisticated criminals achieve their results with discipline, but you can successfully stop BEC and similar attacks by relying on your own discipline in several areas. BEC is totally preventable if a business combines employee education and testing with meticulous authorization control processes, audit oversight, and IT security techniques. Instill this discipline and you won't be a victim.
By David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed