A wave of business email compromise (BEC) campaigns targeting direct-deposit payroll information demonstrate once again that sophisticated technical skills aren’t necessary when you can convince employees to simply hand you money.
Vade Secure recently discovered an ongoing direct-deposit spear-phishing campaign that used conversational email messages to make first contact with HR representatives in an attempt to enlist their help in re-directing direct deposit funds into the criminals’ accounts.
Adrien Gendre, chief solution architect for Vade Secure, says BEC-type attacks are popular because the cost is cheap and when successful, the results are rapid. Vade Secure has seen this type of spear phishing attack across multiple customers in recent months. “It’s not isolated, that’s for sure,” he says.
The widespread nature of the problem is amplified in a new report by Agari Data on London Blue, a multinational gang conducting BEC campaigns first revealed in December. London Blue harvests the names and addresses of targets from legitimate sources, buying access to executives from companies paid to provide contact information (typically for legitimate marketing operations).
In the attacks originally reported by Agari Data, the London Blue group used a typical business email compromise (BEC) subterfuge in which the attacker pretends to be a vendor owed money by the victim. In the most recent campaign, the group has switched cover stories and is now pretending that urgent M&A activity requires a rapid down-payment to an account which (because of the secret nature of the negotiations) is not in the victim’s accounting system.
With BEC scams, attackers often use common public email services, such as AOL, Gmail, or HotMail, as the source of their spear-phishing messages. Agari Data notes that, in February, London Blue switched to spoofing the company email address of the CEO in order to add urgency and authenticity to their attack messages.
The campaign Vade Secure reports on doesn’t use address spoofing: instead, they conduct a multi-phase campaign in which step one is to obtain email account credentials from a high-level employee. After that, the employee’s legitimate account is used to send illegitimate spear-phishing email messages to the finance department seeking payment to a throwaway criminal account.
“At its core, it’s a fraud issue,” says Phil Reitinger, president and CEO of Global Cyber Alliance. “It’s a different way to do an attack that is the same basic fraud that you could do with a phone or by sending a fake invoice,” he explains. And that’s why protection against these attacks involves both process and technology.
“If it’s possible for someone to request a check to be cut for $5 million to someone not in the system, you’ve got a problem,” Reitinger says. And the culture of many companies is set up to provide just that problem.
It’s basically a form of social engineering. “Criminals are often using people’s fear of authority or responsiveness to authority,” says Colin Bastable, CEO of Lucy Security. “But you’re also targeting people who want to get things done you know and they’re empowered. So it is really about behavior.”
Both Reitinger and Bastable say that robust financial-control systems can play a huge role in protecting against campaigns like these, as can technology that identifies and protects against spoofed email addresses and highly suspect email contents.
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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and … View Full Bio