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Vietnam's Tien Phong Bank Victim of SWIFT-based Attack

Hanoi-based Tien Phong Bank (TPBank) released a statement late on Sunday saying that it had interrupted the attempted theft of approximately $1.1 million via fraudulent SWIFT messages. It would appear that the statement was in response to inquiries from Reuters, following clues in BAE System's Cyber Heist Attribution report published late last week.

BAE Systems said that it knew of a second attempted SWIFT fraud on a commercial bank in Vietnam using techniques similar to those used in the successful theft of $81 million from the Bangladesh Central Bank. BAE Systems conjectured that it was the same gang behind both attacks. 

It seems likely that TPBank's statement is the first public acknowledgment of the attack. According to a Bloomberg report, the State Bank of Vietnam is now investigating, following receipt of details from TPBank earlier today; that is, after the bank admitted the attack to Reuters, and possibly six months after the incident occurred. The attack took place in the last quarter of 2015. 

Reuters notes that TPBank initially denied it had been targeted when first contacted on Friday, saying simply it "did not have any problems." BAE Systems did not immediately respond to SecurityWeek's request for confirmation that the Vietnam commercial bank in its report 'Cyber Heist Attribution' is this same TPBank. Nevertheless it seems likely that this is the same bank.

According to Reuters, TPBank recognized suspicious SWIFT messages attempting to transfer $1.1 million and was able to prevent any loss by immediately contacting all involved parties. It "did not," says the statement, "cause any losses. It had no impact on the SWIFT system in particular and the transaction system between the bank and customers in general." 

The attempted transfers were made using the infrastructure of an unnamed third-party vendor hired to connect the bank to SWIFT. The bank said the attack may have been facilitated by malware installed on an application used by this third party; but does not specifically refer to the PDF malware described by SWIFT in a letter to members last week. According to this letter, the then unnamed Vietnam bank uses PDF files to validate transactions; the malware manipulates these files to remove traces of the fraudulent transactions.

What isn't yet clear is whether TPBank discovered the attack independently or was warned by either BAE Systems or SWIFT. The published timings, however, suggest it was independent. Its own attack was towards the end of 2015, while the attack on the Bangladesh central bank and its disclosure happened in February 2016.

In the Bangladesh attack the attackers sought to steal nearly $1 billion dollars. Most of this was blocked, but the gang still got away with $81 million. Bangladeshi authorities have reportedly claimed that both the New York Fed and SWIFT itself share some responsibility for the loss. 

From current reports it is not clear whether TPBank reported its own attack to SWIFT. Had it done so, it could have alerted SWIFT to watch out for further attacks on its customers - before the Bangladesh attack. SWIFT did not immediately respond to SecurityWeek's request for clarification.

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.