Just a few days after new figures from the FBI confirmed business email compromise scams were the biggest cause of losses to cybercrime, news broke of a massive cyberattack on a Puerto Rico government agency. Cybercriminals had gained access to the email account of an employee, understood to work in the Puerto Rico Employee Retirement System.
The compromised email account was used to send requests to other government agencies requesting changes be made to standard bank accounts for remittance payments. Since the email account used was trusted, the changes to bank accounts were made. Scheduled payments were then made as normal and millions of dollars of remittance payments were wired to attacker-controlled bank accounts.
The Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company, a state-owned corporation that drives economic development of the country, was one of the worst hit. Emails were received requesting changes to bank accounts and two payments were made. The first payment of $63,000 was made in December and another payment of $2.6 million in January. Other departments were also targeted, including the Tourism Company. The latter made a payment of $1.5 million. In total, the scammers attempted to steal around $4.73 million.
The business email compromise scam was uncovered when those payments were not received by the correct recipients. Prompt action was then taken to block the transfers and some of the payments were frozen, but the government has not been able to recover around $2.6 million of the stolen funds.
A full investigation has been launched to determine how the attackers gained access to the email account to pull off the scam. While the method used has not been confirmed, BEC attacks usually start with a spear phishing email.
A phishing email is sent to a person of interest requesting urgent action be taken to address a problem. A link is supplied in the email that directs the user to a website that requests their email account credentials. The account can then be accessed by the attacker. Attackers often set up mail forwarders to receive a copy of every email sent to and from the account. This enables them to learn about the company and typical payments and construct highly convincing scam emails.
Once access to a corporate email account is gained, the BEC scam is much harder to identify and block. The best defense is to ensure that the initial phishing emails are not delivered, and that is an area where TitanHQ can help.