Business E-mail Compromise (BEC)

Since 2013, an emerging financial cyber threat called business e-mail compromise (BEC) surfaced worldwide. Organized crime groups have targeted large and small companies and organizations in Trinidad and Tobago and more than 100 countries around the world—from non-profits and well-known corporations to churches and school systems. Losses are in the billions of dollars and climbing.

At its heart, BEC relies on the oldest trick in the con artist’s handbook: deception. But the level of sophistication in this multifaceted global fraud is unprecedented, according to law enforcement officials, and professional businesspeople continue to fall victim to the scheme.

Carried out by transnational criminal organizations that employ lawyers, linguists, hackers, and social engineers, BEC can take a variety of forms. But in just about every case, the scammers target employees with access to company finances and trick them into making wire transfers to bank accounts thought to belong to trusted partners—except the money ends up in accounts controlled by the criminals.

Those techniques include online ploys such as spear-phishing, social engineering, identity theft, e-mail spoofing, and the use of malware. The perpetrators are so practiced at their craft that the deception is often difficult to uncover until it is too late.

Although the perpetrators of BEC—also known as CEO impersonation—use a variety of tactics to fool their victims, a common scheme involves the criminal group gaining access to a company’s network through a spear-phishing attack and the use of malware. Undetected, they may spend weeks or months studying the organization’s vendors, billing systems, and the CEO’s style of e-mail communication and even his or her travel schedule.

When the time is right, often when the CEO is away from the office, the scammers send a bogus e-mail from the CEO or vendor to a targeted employee in the finance office—a bookkeeper, accountant, controller, or chief financial officer. A request is made for an immediate wire transfer, usually to a trusted vendor. The targeted employee believes he is sending money to a familiar account, just as he has done in the past. But the account numbers and vendor’s financial institution are different, and the transfer of what might be tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars ends up in a different account controlled by the criminal group. Usually the reason for the change in accounts or financial institutions is that the vendor’s main account is under audit and cannot accept any deposits. A reasonable explanation.

If the fraud is not discovered in time, the money is hard to recover, thanks to the criminal group’s use of laundering techniques and “money mules” worldwide that drain the funds into other accounts that are difficult to trace.

The Art of Deception

The organized criminal groups that engage in business e-mail compromise scams are extremely sophisticated. Here are some of the online tools they use to target and exploit their victims:

  • Spoofing e-mail accounts and websites: Slight variations on legitimate addresses ( vs. fool victims into thinking fake accounts are authentic. The criminals then use a spoofing tool to direct e-mail responses to a different account that they control. The victim thinks he is corresponding with the vendor, but that is not the case.
  • Spear-phishing: Bogus e-mails believed to be from a trusted sender prompt victims to reveal confidential information to the BEC perpetrators.
  • Malware: Used to infiltrate company networks and gain access to legitimate e-mail threads about billing and invoices. That information is used to make sure the suspicions of an accountant or financial officer aren’t raised when a fraudulent wire transfer is requested. Malware also allows criminals undetected access to a victim’s data, including passwords and financial account information.
If you or your company have been victimized by a BEC scam, it’s important to act quickly. Contact your financial institution immediately and request that they contact the financial institution where the fraudulent transfer was sent.

Don’t Be a Victim

The business e-mail compromise scam has resulted in companies and organizations losing billions of dollars. But as sophisticated as the fraud is, there is an easy solution to thwart it: face-to-face or voice-to-voice communications.

Here are other methods businesses have employed to safeguard against BEC:

  • Verify changes in vendor payment location by adding additional two-factor authentication such as having secondary sign-off by company personnel.
  • Confirm requests for transfers of funds by using phone verification as part of a two-factor authentication; use previously known numbers, not the numbers provided in the e-mail request.
  • Carefully scrutinize all e-mail requests for transfer of funds to determine if the requests are out of the ordinary.
  • Create intrusion detection system rules that flag e-mails with extensions that are similar to company e-mail. For example, legitimate e-mail of would flag fraudulent e-mail of
  • Create an e-mail rule to flag e-mail communications where the “reply” e-mail address is different from the “from” e-mail address shown.
  • Color code virtual correspondence so e-mails from employee/internal accounts are one color and e-mails from non-employee/external accounts are another.


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