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8 Real-World Examples of Business Email Compromise (Updated 2021)

  • 10 June 2021

Tessian’s mission is to secure the human layer by empowering people to do their best work, without security getting in their way.

Business Email Compromise (BEC) attacks use real or impersonated business email accounts to defraud employees. The FBI calls BEC a “$26 billion scam” that affects thousands of businesses every year.

This article will look at some examples of BEC attacks that have cost organizations money, time, and reputation — to help you avoid making the same mistakes.

Not sure what BEC is? We tell you everything you need to know about it – including how it works – in this article: What is Business Email Compromise and How Does it Work? You can also learn how Tessian prevents BEC for organizations across industires here

1. $17.2m acquisition scam

Our first example demonstrates how fraudsters can play on a target’s trust and exploit interpersonal relationships.

In June 2014, Keith McMurtry, a Scoular employee, received an email supposedly from his boss, CEO Chuck Elsea. The email informed McMurty that Scoular was set to acquire a Chinese company.

Elsea instructed McMurty to contact a lawyer at accounting firm KPMG. The lawyer would help facilitate a transfer of funds and close the deal. 

McMurty obeyed, and he soon found himself transferring $17.2 million to a Shanghai bank account in the name of “Dadi Co.”

The CEO’s email, as you might have guessed, was fraudulent. The scammers had used email impersonation to create accounts imitating both Elsea and the KPMG lawyer.

Aside from the gargantuan $17.2m loss, what’s special about the Scoular scam? Take a look at this excerpt from the email, provided by FT.com, from “Elsea” to McMurty:

“We need the company to be funded properly and to show sufficient strength toward the Chinese. Keith, I will not forget your professionalism in this deal, and I will show you my appreciation very shortly.”

Given the emotive language, the praise, and the promise of future rewards — it’s easy to see why an employee would go along with a scam like this.

2. Law enforcement turns a blind eye to nonprofit’s $625,000 BEC loss

BEC rates have been rising for several years, as demonstrated by 2021 data from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). 

The IC3 says that in 2020, losses from BEC exceeded $1.8 billion—that’s a fourfold increase since 2016. The number of BEC incidents also rose by 61% between 2016 and 2020.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising—if somewhat disheartening—that law enforcement agencies are struggling to cope with all the BEC incidents that companies are reporting to them.

In June 2021, we learned that San Fransisco-based homelessness charity Treasure Island fell victim to a devastating, month-long $625,000 BEC attack after hackers infiltrated the organization’s bookkeeper’s email system.

The hackers found and manipulated a legitimate invoice used by one of Treasure Island’s partner organizations. Staff at Treasure Island transferred a loan intended for the partner organization straight into the cybercriminals’ bank account. 

The nonprofit sadly lacked cybercrime insurance. But even worse—the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Fransisco, which would have been responsible for leading an investigation into the BEC attack, reportedly declined to investigate the incident.

This case serves as a reminder that, when it comes to cybercrime, prevention is always better than cure. Building security into your systems is the only viable way to avoid the losses associated with BEC attacks.

3. BEC scammers exploit COVID-19 fears

2020 was a turbulent year, and we saw cybercriminals exploiting people’s fear and uncertainty like never before. A particularly prevalent example was the trend of COVID-19-related BEC scams.

As the pandemic spread, governments worldwide issued warnings about a surge in cyberattacks. In April 2020, for example, the FBI warned that scammers were “using the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic” to conduct BEC scams. 

The FBI gave one example of an unnamed company, whose supposed supplier requested payments to a new account “due to the Coronavirus outbreak and quarantine processes and precautions.”

Criminals will always seek to capitalize on chaos. In December 2020, Keeper reported that uncertainty caused by COVID-19, Brexit, and the move to remote-working led to 70% of U.K. finance companies experiences experiencing BEC attacks over the preceding year.

Looking for more examples of scammers exploiting COVID-19 fears? We share four more and outline the red flags contained in each here. BONUS! There’s a downloadable guide at the bottom of the article. 

4. Prison sentence for Atlantan BEC scammer

In June 2021, an Atlanta court sentenced Anthony Dwayne King to two and a half years in prison for his role in a BEC scam—but only after he’d earned nearly $250,000 ripping off businesses and individuals across four U.S. states.

Between October 2018 and February 2019, King and his accomplices conducted BEC and vishing (phone phishing) operations, setting up fake companies and opening fraudulent bank accounts to redirect wire transfers. 

The cybercriminals targeted law firms and home movers but were thwarted by Georgia’s Cyber Fraud Task Force. As well as serving federal prison time, King will have to repay the money he stole from his victims.

5. Hacker group behind Solarwinds attack launches BEC campaign

The cybersecurity world was rocked in 2020 by the Solarwinds attacks, in which Russian group Nobelium (also known as Cozy Bear and APT29, among other names) pushed its malware into thousands of organizations’ systems via a software update.

In March 2021, we learned about Nobelium’s new campaign. Rather than hijacking software updates provided by a trusted software provider, Nobelium’s most recent cybercrime spree leverages a trusted mass email provider.

Nobelium reportedly used email provider Constant Contact to send more than 3,000 emails to over 150 organizations, including government agencies. 

The emails were disguised as information about electoral fraud and contained a malicious payload designed to create a backdoor into the recipient’s computer.

As companies worldwide attempt to recover from the impact of the Solarwinds attack, Nobelium’s follow-on campaign reminds us about the variety of threat vectors available to cybercrime groups.

If you want to learn more about the SolarWinds attack, check out our conversation with world-renowed hacker Samy

6. $46.7m vendor fraud

In August 2015, IT company Ubiquiti filed a report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission revealing it was the victim of a $46.7 million “business fraud.”

This attack was an example of a type of BEC, sometimes called Vendor Email Compromise (VEC). The scammers impersonated employees at a third-party company and targeted Ubiquiti’s finance department.

We still don’t know precisely how the cybercriminals pulled off this massive scam. VEC attacks previously relied on domain impersonation and email spoofing techniques, but these days, scammers are increasingly turning to the more sophisticated account takeover method.

7. Snapchat payroll information breach

Many high-profile BEC attacks target a company’s finance department and request payment of an invoice to a new account. But not all BEC scams involve wire transfer fraud. Here’s an example of how BEC scams can target data, as well as money.

In February 2016, cybercriminals launched a BEC attack against social media firm Snapchat. Impersonating Snapchat’s CEO, the attackers obtained “payroll information about some current and former employees.”

The scam resulted in a breach of some highly sensitive data, including employees’ Social Security Numbers, tax information, salaries, and healthcare plans. Snapchat offered each affected employee two years of free credit monitoring and up to $1 million in reimbursement.

8. The big one: $121m BEC scam targeting Facebook and Google 

Last — but by no means least — let’s look at the biggest known BEC scam of all time: a VEC attack against tech giants Facebook and Google that resulted in around $121 million in collective losses.

The scam took place between 2013 and 2015 — and the man at the center of this BEC attack, Evaldas Rimasauskas, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2019.

So how did some of the world’s most tech-savvy employees fall for this elaborate hoax? 

Rimasauskas and associates set up a fake company named “Quanta Computer”  — the same name as a real hardware supplier. The group then presented Facebook and Google with convincing-looking invoices, which they duly paid to bank accounts controlled by Rimasauskas.

As well as fake invoices, the scammers prepared counterfeit lawyers’ letters and contracts to ensure their banks accepted the transfers.

The Rimasauskas scam stands as a lesson to all organizations. If two of the world’s biggest tech companies lost millions to BEC over a two-year period — it could happen to any business.

Want to explore other examples of email attacks? Check out these articles:

  1. 6 Examples of Social Engineering Attacks
  2. COVID-19: Real-Life Examples of Opportunistic Phishing Emails 
  3. Phishing Statistics (Updated 2021)