Security Experts:

Two Scammers, Five Mules Arrested in BEC Bust

A criminal investigation commenced by the French National Gendarmerie in June 2016 led to the arrest of one French and one Belgian national on February 20, 2018 for their part in large scale CEO fraud (also known as business email compromise -- BEC).

According to Europol, "The criminals belonged to an organized crime group involved in at least 24 cases of CEO fraud causing €4.6 million worth of damage."

The investigation was launched when French law enforcement was informed that two companies had fallen victim to BEC fraud, with a total estimated cost of €1.2 million. Since then, the investigation has identified 15 alleged Romanian company managers living in France and Belgian involved in orchestrating BEC fraud and Forex scams. Money obtained from the BEC scams was sent via the Romanian company accounts to Hong Kong.

The two suspects arrested in France are thought to be recruiters and facilitators for the criminal gang; but not the masterminds. "The suspects arrested in Paris and Lille seem to be closely linked to the ring leader(s) most probably hiding in Israel, where computers and mobile phones have also been seized," announced Europol on Friday.

A further five individuals were arrested in Belgium, suspected of acting as money mules for the gang.

BEC fraud has become a major problem over the last few years. According to figures from the FBI, worldwide BEC fraud netted $2.3 billion from 17,642 victims in at least 79 countries from October 2013 through February 2016.

A typical BEC scam will persuade an authorized employee to wire money to an external account. It is a sophisticated version -- with much higher stakes -- of the pre-internet fax directory scam where a fake invoice is sent to a company because it often just gets paid. It is similar in operation to targeted spear-phishing using a disguised sender and social engineering to trick the target. Typically, it is an email disguised to appear as if it comes from the CEO (hence its common description as CEO fraud), asking the finance director to urgently mail funds to or for a supplier or partner.

In this instance, the two arrested in France helped people to establish firms with Romanian bank accounts. According to Europol these included law firms and notaries. An apparent email from the CEO asking for funds to be sent to a law firm in France acting on behalf of a known or fictitious supplier could appear both safe and compelling.

Unlike phishing, BEC carries no payload in the form of a malicious link or weaponized attachment. Without such a payload to detect, BEC emails are very difficult to flag with technology. 

In February, Agari published a trends analysis (PDF) of BEC. It found that in the second half of 2017, an average of 45 BEC attacks per company bypassed secure email gateways (SEG), advanced threat protection systems (APT), and targeted attack protection (TAP); 96% or organizations had experienced BEC attacks; and one company had experienced 369 attacks.

DMARC can help prevent BEC, but is not foolproof. Furthermore, Agari points out that 67% of the Fortune 500 do not have a DMARC policy, and only 5% have a Reject (or “blocking”) policy on their corporate domain.

Because of the difficulties in detecting BEC attacks, there have been several major successful examples during 2017. In April 2017, the Justice Department disclosed that Google and Facebook lost a combined $100 million to BEC attacks impersonating their server hardware supplier Quanta. In June 2017, New York Judge Lori Sattler was duped into sending $1,057,500 to a scammer posing as her lawyer in a real estate deal. In August 2017, MacEwan University in Alberta, Canada was defrauded of $11.8 million in a BEC attack impersonating a vendor of the university.

Related: The Alarming Numbers Behind Business Email Compromise Scams 

Related: DMARC Implemented on Half of U.S. Government Domains

view counter
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.