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business email compromise (BEC, man-in-the-email attack)

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

A business email compromise (BEC) is an exploit in which the attacker gains access to a corporate email account and spoofs the owner’s identity to defraud the company or its employees, customers or partners of money. In some cases, an attacker simply creates an account with an email address that is very similar to one on the corporate network. BEC are also referred to as man-in-the email attacks.

In a BEC exploit, the attacker typically uses the identity of someone on a corporate network to trick the target or targets into sending money to the attacker’s account. BEC may involve malware,  social engineering or a combination of the two. The most common victims of BEC are companies that use wire transfers to send money to international clients.

There are numerous ways that BEC can be used to defraud targets. Here are a few examples:

  • Bogus invoicing scams use a compromised employee account to request a change in payee information, transferring payments to the perpetrator’s account.
  • In CEO fraud scams, the criminal pretends to be an executive and requests that an HR or finance department employee make an emergency payment.
  • In an employee account compromise, the attacker might, for example, send an invoice to partner vendors.
  • An attorney’s email identity might be used to pressure for payments, claiming to be handling time-sensitive, confidential matters and requesting immediate payment.

Cybercriminals may further use a compromised account (especially those of HR employees) to gain more personally-identifiable information (PII) for later use in defrauding the company or its clients.

The FBI estimated that from 2013-2015, BEC-related losses affected 22143 victims in 79 countries, with estimated losses of $3,086,250,090. Measures to prevent BEC include employee education, phone verification of payment changes, secondary sign-offs for payment changes and just generally keeping an eye out for irregularities in email communications.

This was last updated in January 2017

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