What Are BEC Attacks?
BEC Attacks are a form of cybercrime that targets businesses using fraudulent emails. It involves the attacker impersonating a high-ranking executive or trusted vendor and tricking employees into transferring money or sharing sensitive information. These attacks are often highly sophisticated, incorporating social engineering techniques to make the fraudulent emails appear legitimate and compelling the recipient to comply.
In most cases, the attacker carefully studies their target, understanding their internal processes, communication style, and vendor relationships. This meticulous preparation allows them to design a convincing deception. They exploit human psychology, banking on employees’ fear of disappointing superiors or breaking established protocols. Despite the technological advancements in cybersecurity, BEC attacks remain alarmingly successful due to their reliance on human error.
The insidious nature of BEC attacks lies in their subtlety. They don’t rely on malware or traditional hacking methods. Instead, they hinge on deception, making them harder to detect and prevent. It’s therefore crucial to understand the impact of BEC attacks and how they work to effectively safeguard your business.
The Impact of BEC Attacks
One of the most immediate and devastating impacts of BEC attacks is the financial loss incurred by businesses. Whether it’s through deceptive money transfers or theft of sensitive financial data, businesses stand to lose thousands, if not millions, due to these attacks. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center reported that BEC scams accounted for over $1.8 billion in losses in 2020 alone.
Not only do businesses suffer direct financial loss from fraudulent transactions, but they also bear the cost of recovery. This includes investigating the breach, strengthening security measures, and potential compensation for affected parties. In many cases, the total cost of a BEC attack can be significantly higher than the initial loss.
BEC attacks can severely disrupt a business’s operations. Once an attack has taken place, it’s often necessary to halt certain functions to investigate the breach, identify the compromised systems, and prevent further damage. This can delay projects, disrupt service delivery, and result in lost business opportunities.
Moreover, the fallout from a BEC attack can lead to a loss of productivity. Employees may need to devote time to dealing with the aftermath of the attack, such as changing passwords, updating security protocols, and participating in investigations. This time away from their regular duties can significantly hinder a company’s operations.
Damage to Brand Reputation
The damage from a BEC attack extends beyond the immediate financial loss and operational disruption. Businesses also suffer harm to their reputation, which can have long-term implications. Customers, partners, and stakeholders may lose trust in a company that falls victim to a BEC attack, especially if sensitive data is compromised.
Rebuilding this trust takes time and resources. Companies often need to invest in public relations campaigns to reassure stakeholders and demonstrate that they’ve taken steps to prevent future attacks. However, the damage to a company’s reputation can persist, affecting customer loyalty and ultimately, the bottom line.
Legal and Regulatory Implications
Finally, BEC attacks can have serious legal and regulatory implications. In many jurisdictions, businesses are legally required to protect sensitive data. A BEC attack that results in a data breach can lead to non-compliance penalties, legal action from affected parties, and increased scrutiny from regulators.
Furthermore, businesses may need to demonstrate that they had adequate security measures in place prior to the attack. Failure to do so can result in additional penalties and further damage to the company’s reputation. It’s therefore crucial for businesses to understand how BEC attacks work and take the necessary steps to protect themselves.
How BEC Attacks Work
Before launching the attack, the cybercriminal undertakes a thorough intelligence-gathering process. They study the company’s organizational structure, communication style, and vendor relationships. They may also research the executive they’re impersonating to mimic their writing style and habits. This detailed understanding of the company allows the attacker to craft a convincing deception.
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 executive’s email address. The attacker then uses this compromised account or spoofed address to send fraudulent emails, often requesting urgent money transfers or sensitive information.
The attacker then impersonates the executive or trusted vendor. This could involve sending emails from the compromised account or creating a spoofed email address that closely resembles the executive’s. The fraudulent emails often create a sense of urgency, pressuring the recipient into complying with the request without questioning its legitimacy.
Finally, the attacker manipulates the recipient into transferring money or sharing sensitive information. They exploit 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 discovered, the attacker has often disappeared, leaving the business to deal with the fallout.
Red Flags and Warning Signs
Inconsistencies in Email Content and Sender Details
One of the first red flags of BEC attacks is inconsistencies in email content and sender details. Hackers often impersonate high-ranking officials within organizations, using their authority to trick employees into releasing sensitive information or transferring funds. However, they frequently make mistakes in the email content and sender details. They might misspell names, use unusual language, or include incorrect details. It’s essential to pay close attention to these details and verify the sender’s identity before responding to any email.
Another common inconsistency is the email address itself. BEC attackers often use email addresses that look similar to the official ones but have slight differences such as a different domain or a misspelled name. These subtle changes are often overlooked but could be a clear indication of a BEC attack.
Unexpected or Unusual Requests
Another warning sign of BEC attacks is unexpected or unusual requests. Hackers often send emails requesting immediate action or financial transactions, which are typically out of the ordinary. These requests may involve changing payment details, transferring funds to a new account, purchasing gift cards, or providing sensitive information. They often come with a sense of urgency, creating pressure on the recipient to act quickly without questioning the request’s legitimacy.
It’s crucial to always question unusual requests, especially when they involve financial transactions or sensitive information. If you receive such a request, it’s a good idea to verify it independently, either by contacting the supposed sender directly using known contact details or speaking to a supervisor.
Pressure to Bypass Regular Procedures
Pressure to bypass regular procedures or protocols is another common tactic used in BEC attacks. Cybercriminals know that companies have checks and balances in place to prevent unauthorized transactions and information sharing. They often create scenarios that necessitate immediate action, forcing employees to bypass these protocols.
This pressure can come in various forms, such as a high-ranking executive needing an immediate fund transfer or a vendor requesting a change in payment details due to an emergency. It’s critical to resist this pressure and stick to the established procedures, no matter how urgent the request seems.
Preventive Measures and Best Practices
Employee Education and Training
One of the most effective ways to prevent BEC attacks is through employee education and training. Many BEC attacks succeed because employees are not aware of the risks and warning signs. Regular training sessions can help them understand the nature of BEC attacks and how to identify potential threats.
Training should include real-life examples and scenarios, making it easier for employees to recognize a BEC attack when they encounter one. It should also emphasize the importance of verifying information and not responding to suspicious emails.
Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
Another essential preventive measure is the use of Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA). MFA adds an additional layer of security by requiring users to provide two or more verification methods to gain access to an online account. This makes it more difficult for attackers to gain unauthorized access, even if they have the user’s password.
In the context of BEC attacks, MFA can prevent hackers from accessing corporate email accounts, even if they manage to trick an employee into revealing their password. This significantly reduces the risk of BEC attacks succeeding.
Email Filtering Solutions
Email filtering solutions are also an effective way to prevent BEC attacks. These solutions can detect and block suspicious emails based on various criteria, such as the sender’s email address, the email’s content, and the presence of malicious links or attachments.
By using email filtering solutions, companies can significantly reduce the number of potentially harmful emails that reach their employees’ inboxes, thus reducing the risk of BEC attacks.
Regularly Updating Policies
Regularly updating policies is another critical preventive measure. Companies should regularly review and update their cybersecurity policies to keep up with the evolving threat landscape. These policies should cover various areas, including email usage, financial transactions, and the handling of sensitive information.
When updating policies, companies should consider the latest trends and techniques used in BEC attacks. This will ensure that their policies are effective against the most current threats.
Finally, regular backups are a crucial part of any cybersecurity strategy, including the prevention of BEC attacks. In some cases, BEC attacks can result in data loss, either because the attacker deletes the data or because the data becomes inaccessible due to ransomware.
Regular backups ensure that a company can recover its data in case of a BEC attack. It’s important to store these backups offline or in a separate network to prevent them from being affected by the attack.
In conclusion, BEC attacks pose a significant threat to companies of all sizes and industries. However, by understanding the warning signs and implementing preventive measures, companies can protect themselves from these attacks and maintain their cybersecurity.
Author Bio: Gilad David Maayan
Gilad David Maayan is a technology writer who has worked with over 150 technology companies including SAP, Imperva, Samsung NEXT, NetApp and Check Point, producing technical and thought leadership content that elucidates technical solutions for developers and IT leadership. Today he heads Agile SEO, the leading marketing agency in the technology industry.