Phishing is commonly used to gain access to credentials to hijack email accounts for use in business email compromise (BEC) attacks. Once credentials have been obtained, the email account can be used to send phishing emails internally, with a view to obtaining the credentials of the main target. Alternatively, by spear phishing the target account, those steps can be eliminated.

If the credentials are obtained for the CEO or CFO, emails can be crafted and sent to individuals responsible for wire transfers, requesting payments be made to an attacker-controlled account. A common alternative is to target vendors, in an attack referred to as vendor email compromise (VEC). Once access is gained to a vendor’s account, the information contained in the email accounts provides detailed information on customers that can be targeted.

When a payment is due to be made, the vendor’s email account is used to request a change to the account for the upcoming payment. When the payment is made to the attacker-controlled account, it usually takes a few days before the non-payment is identified by the vendor, by which time it may be too late to recover the fraudulently transferred funds. While BEC and VEC attacks are nowhere near as common as phishing attacks, they are the leading cause of losses to cybercrime due to the large amounts of money obtained through fraudulent wire transfers. One attack in 2018 resulted in the theft of $23.5 million dollars from the U.S. Department of Defense.

In this case, two individuals involved in the scam were identified, including a Californian man who has just pleaded guilty to six counts related to the attack. He now faces up to 107 years in jail for the scam, although these scams are commonly conducted by threat actors in overseas countries, and the perpetrators often escape justice. The scam was conducted like many others. The BEC gang targeted DoD vendors between June 2018 and September 2018 and used phishing emails to obtain credentials for email accounts. An employee at a DoD vendor that had a contract to supply Aviation JA1 Turbine fuel to troops in southeast Asia for the DoD received an email that spoofed the U.S. government and included a hyperlink to a malicious website that had been created to support the scam.

The website used for the scam had the domain, which mimicked the official website, and email accounts were set up on that domain to closely resemble official email accounts. The phishing emails directed the employee to a cloned version of the government website,, which harvested the employee’s credentials. The credentials allowed the scammer to change bank account information in the SAM (System for Award Management) database to the account credentials of the shell company set up for the scam. When the payment of $23,453,350 for the jet fuel was made, it went to the scammers rather than the vendor.

Security systems were in place to identify fraudulent changes to bank account information, but despite those measures, the payment was made. The SAM database is scanned every 24 hours and any bank account changes are flagged and checked. The scammers learned of this and made calls to the Defense Logistics Agency and provided a reason why the change was made and succeeded in getting the change manually approved, although flags were still raised as the payment was made to a company that was not an official government contractor. That allowed the transfer to be reverted. Many similar scams are not detected in time and the recovery of funds is not possible. By the time the scam is identified, the scammers’ account has been emptied or closed.

The key to preventing BEC and VEC attacks is to deal with the issue at its source to prevent phishing emails from reaching inboxes and teach employees how to identify and avoid phishing scams. TitanHQ can help in both areas through SpamTitan Email Security and the SafeTitan security awareness training and phishing simulation platform. Businesses should also implement multifactor authentication to stop stolen credentials from being used to access accounts.