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BEC Attacks

Chris Swagler | October 31st, 2023


Businesses of all sizes are under constant threat from a sophisticated form of cybercrime known as Business Email Compromise (BEC) attacks. In this article, we’ll delve deep into the world of BEC attacks, unraveling their intricacies, and providing crucial insights that every business should be aware of to defend against this menace.

Understanding BEC Attacks

Business Email Compromise attacks, or BEC attacks, are a pernicious breed of cybercrime that sets its sights on businesses. The modus operandi is simple yet highly effective – threat operators impersonate high-ranking executives or trusted vendors, hoodwinking unsuspecting employees into parting with money or sensitive information. These attacks are often executed with surgical precision, leveraging social engineering techniques to make fraudulent emails appear legitimate, thereby compelling recipients to comply.

What makes BEC attacks particularly insidious is their reliance on subtlety. Unlike traditional hacking methods that employ malware or brute force tactics, BEC attacks hinge on deception. This makes them exceptionally difficult to detect and thwart, emphasizing the importance of understanding their impact and working proactively to safeguard your business.

The Impact of BEC Attacks

  • Financial Consequences – BEC attacks inflict immediate and substantial financial losses on businesses. Whether it’s through fraudulent money transfers or the pilfering of sensitive financial data, these attacks have the potential to cost businesses thousands, or even millions, of dollars. In 2020 alone, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center reported over $1.8 billion in losses due to BEC scams.
Beyond the initial financial hit, businesses are burdened with the cost of recovery, including investigating the breach, fortifying security measures, and potentially compensating affected parties. In many cases, the total cost of a BEC attack can far exceed the initial monetary loss.
  • Operational Disruption – BEC attacks can wreak havoc on a company’s operations. Following an attack, businesses often find it necessary to pause certain functions to investigate the breach, identify compromised systems, and prevent further damage. This disruption can lead to project delays, service interruptions, and missed business opportunities. Additionally, the aftermath of a BEC attack can hamper productivity as employees divert their attention from regular tasks to address security concerns. This disruption can have far-reaching consequences for a company’s day-to-day operations.
  • Damage to Brand Reputation – The fallout from a BEC attack extends beyond immediate financial losses and operational disruptions. Businesses also suffer reputational damage, which can have long-lasting repercussions. Customers, partners, and stakeholders may lose trust in a company that falls prey to a BEC attack, especially if sensitive data is compromised. Rebuilding trust is a time-consuming and resource-intensive process. Companies often need to invest in public relations campaigns to reassure stakeholders and demonstrate proactive steps to prevent future attacks. Nonetheless, the stain on a company’s reputation can persist, affecting customer loyalty and, ultimately, the bottom line.
  • Legal and Regulatory Implications – BEC attacks can lead to serious legal and regulatory consequences. In many jurisdictions, businesses are legally obligated to safeguard sensitive data. A BEC attack that results in a data breach can trigger non-compliance penalties, legal actions from affected parties, and heightened scrutiny from regulatory authorities.
Furthermore, businesses may need to prove they had robust security measures in place before the attack occurred. Failure to do so can result in additional penalties and further damage to the company’s reputation. Thus, it’s imperative for businesses to grasp how BEC attacks operate and take proactive measures to shield themselves.

How BEC Attacks Operate

  • Intelligence Gathering – Before launching a BEC attack, cybercriminals conduct meticulous intelligence gathering. They study the company’s organizational structure, communication style, and vendor relationships. They may even research the executive they plan to impersonate to mimic their writing style and habits. This in-depth understanding allows threat operators to craft a convincing ruse.
  • Initial Compromise – The first step in a BEC attack is the initial compromise. This could involve the attacker gaining access to a high-ranking executive’s email account through phishing or spoofing. The compromised account or spoofed address is then used to send fraudulent emails, typically requesting urgent money transfers or sensitive information.
  • Impersonation – Subsequently, the attacker impersonates the executive or trusted vendor. This may entail sending emails from the compromised account or creating a spoofed email address closely resembling the executives. These fraudulent emails often exude urgency, pressuring recipients into compliance without questioning legitimacy.
  • Manipulation – Finally, the attacker manipulates the recipient into transferring money or divulging sensitive information. They capitalize on the recipient’s trust in the impersonated executive or vendor and their fear of breaking protocol or disappointing superiors. By the time the deception is unraveled, the attacker has usually vanished, leaving the business to grapple with the consequences.

Red Flags and Warning Signs

  • Inconsistencies in Email Content and Sender Details – Vigilance is key when it comes to detecting BEC attacks. Inconsistencies in email content and sender details often serve as red flags. Threat operators typically impersonate high-ranking officials within organizations, leveraging their authority to trick employees. However, they frequently make errors in the email content and sender details, such as misspellings, unusual language, or incorrect information. Paying close attention to these details and verifying the sender’s identity before responding to any email is crucial.
Additionally, watch out for subtle discrepancies in email addresses. BEC threat operators often use email addresses that mimic official ones but contain slight variations, such as a different domain or a misspelled name.
  • Unexpected or Unusual Requests – BEC attacks often involve unexpected or unusual requests. Threat operators send emails demanding immediate actions or financial transactions that deviate from the norm. These requests may include altering payment details, transferring funds to a new account, purchasing gift cards, or divulging sensitive information. They often come with a sense of urgency, creating pressure on the recipient to act promptly without questioning the request’s authenticity. It’s essential to exercise caution when encountering such requests, particularly when they pertain to financial transactions or sensitive information. Verifying such requests independently, either by contacting the supposed sender using established contact details or consulting with a supervisor, is advisable.
  • Pressure to Bypass Regular Procedures – Pressure to bypass standard procedures or protocols is a common tactic employed in BEC attacks. Cybercriminals understand that companies have checks and balances in place to thwart unauthorized transactions and information sharing. Consequently, they engineer scenarios that necessitate immediate action, compelling employees to circumvent these protocols.
This pressure can manifest in various forms, such as a high-ranking executive demanding an urgent fund transfer or a vendor requesting payment details change due to an emergency. It is imperative to resist such pressure and adhere to established procedures, regardless of how urgent the request appears.

Preventive Measures and Best Practices

  • Employee Education and Training – One of the most effective strategies against BEC attacks is employee education and training. Many BEC attacks succeed because employees lack awareness of the risks and warning signs. Regular training sessions can equip them with the knowledge to recognize BEC attacks and potential threats.
Training should incorporate real-life examples and scenarios to help employees identify BEC attacks when they encounter them. Emphasis should also be placed on verifying information and refraining from responding to suspicious emails.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) – Implementing Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is another essential preventive measure. MFA adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide two or more verification methods to access an online account. This significantly raises the bar for threat operators attempting to gain unauthorized access, even if they possess the user’s password.
In the context of BEC attacks, MFA can thwart threat operators from accessing corporate email accounts, even if they manage to coerce an employee into revealing their password. This significantly diminishes the risk of BEC attacks succeeding.
  • Email Filtering Solutions – Employing email filtering solutions can effectively thwart BEC attacks. These solutions detect and block suspicious emails based on various criteria, including the sender’s email address, email content, and the presence of malicious links or attachments.
By implementing email filtering solutions, businesses can substantially reduce the number of potentially harmful emails reaching their employees’ inboxes, thereby minimizing the risk of BEC attacks.
  • Regularly Updating Policies – Regularly updating cybersecurity policies is crucial. Companies should routinely review and revise their cybersecurity policies to align with the evolving threat landscape. These policies should encompass various areas, including email usage, financial transactions, and the handling of sensitive information.
When updating policies, it is essential to consider the latest trends and techniques employed in BEC attacks, ensuring that policies remain effective against current threats.
  • Regular Backups – Regular backups are a cornerstone of any comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, including protection against BEC attacks. In some instances, BEC attacks can result in data loss, either through data deletion by the attacker or due to ransomware rendering data inaccessible. Regular backups ensure that a company can recover its data in the event of a BEC attack. It is imperative to store these backups offline or on a separate network to safeguard them from potential attack impact.

Business Email Compromise attacks loom as a substantial threat to businesses, transcending industries, and company sizes. However, by comprehending the warning signs and proactively implementing preventive measures, businesses can insulate themselves from these attacks and bolster their cybersecurity defenses. Stay vigilant, educate your employees, and fortify your digital fortress to thwart the subtle menace of BEC attacks. Your business’s financial health and reputation depend on it. Phishing and social engineering attacks are the most common methods threat actors use to harvest legitimate credentials. SpearTip offers phishing training as mitigation to enhance skills related to defending against these threats. The training tests the discernment of companies’ teams, educates employees regarding common phishing tactics and indicators, and identifies related security gaps in their environments. Our team creates phishing email simulations like those threat actors use and sends them throughout an organization. We provide insight and feedback to improve the cyber defenses of their team, leading to a profound decrease in the likelihood of being victimized by phishing scams. After the training, our team provides precise and thorough strategies about how to harden their environments and implement ongoing awareness training. By providing cybersecurity awareness training, organizations, and their employees can better understand the risks of the cyber landscape and develop impactful cybersecurity practices that can reduce the likelihood of cyberattacks.

If your company is experiencing a breach, call our Security Operations Centers at 833.997.7327 to speak directly with an engineer.


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