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One of the oldest forms of crime — the con — is causing massive losses for businesses and individuals. The basic tactic in these increasingly sophisticated schemes is social engineering, in which criminals persuade victims to help the fraudsters obtain access, data or money.

Topping the list in financial losses in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2017 Internet Crime Report is what the FBI calls “business email compromise/e-mail account compromise.” In 2017, BEC/EAC incidents took $676.2 million from 15,690 victims. “Confidence fraud/romance,” was second on the list, generating $211.4 million in losses from 15,372 victims.

The FBI and other federal authorities in June announced the culmination of a six-month coordinated operation to stop international BEC schemes. Operation WireWire resulted in 74 arrests, the seizure of $2.4 million and the recovery of $14 million in fraudulent wire transfers.

Since the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center began tracking BEC/EAC, victims have reported losses totaling more than $3.7 billion. Because many crimes go unreported, these numbers on social engineering fraud may be only the tip of the iceberg.

Social engineering fraud tends to fall into three main categories, each of which can harm a business’s balance sheet and reputation:

Vendor impersonation. Vendor impersonation has become a frequent loss as fraudsters persuade victims to divert recurring payments to new bank accounts or pay bogus invoices. These scams succeed when unsuspecting recipients don’t verify details or check existing records.

Executive impersonation. Less common than vendor impersonation but with much higher stakes, executive impersonation is a highly sophisticated con game, often using data stolen through phishing or other means to earn trust and create plausible scenarios, such as a foreign subsidiary’s acquisition requiring release of funds. Common elements in these scams include urgency and pressure to avoid displeasing senior management. Numerous companies have been defrauded of tens of millions of dollars through this crime.

Client impersonation. These losses have tended to be smaller, but they also are rising. The scams typically target professional services firms and involve overpayments by fake but official-looking checks. Fraudsters ask the firm to remove their retainer and send back the remainder.

Fraud risk mitigation

Variants exist for nearly all types of social engineering, and criminals adapt their tactics, but businesses can mitigate the risk. Three key elements are:

  • People. The first line of defense is training employees to recognize potential frauds, whether phishing e-mails or calls from someone purporting to be a vendor, client or company executive.
  • Processes. Creating a convenient way to report suspicious activity, such as sending dubious e-mails to a folder the IT department investigates, can reduce the chance that employees will inadvertently help criminals.
  • Technology. Computer security solutions continue to improve. For example, some tools let corporate systems set apart Internet browsers in a “sandbox” so malware cannot infect the network. Two-factor authentication with a time-sensitive passcode sent to a user’s cell phone reduces the risk of fraudsters obtaining access to data with only a computer password.

Social engineering attacks are likely to continue, but smart risk management can help businesses stay ahead of the criminals.

Originally published in Risk & Insurance.

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