FBI: $20M in Fraudulent Wire Transfers to China

The Federal Bureau of Investigation warned this week that cyber thieves have stolen approximately $20 million  over the past year from small to mid-sized U.S. businesses through a series of fraudulent wire transfers sent to Chinese economic and trade companies located near the country’s border with Russia.

The FBI said that between March 2010 and April 2011, it identified twenty incidents in which small to mid-sized organizations had fraudulent wire transfers to China after their online banking credentials were stolen by malicious software. The alert was sent out Tuesday in cooperation with the Internet Crime Complaint Center and the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center (FS-ISAC), an industry consortium. The alert notes that actual victim losses are $11 million, suggesting that victim banks were able to claw back some of the fraudulent transfers.

The FBI says it doesn’t know who is behind these fraudulent transfers, but that the intended recipients are companies based in the Heilongjiang province of the People’s Republic of China, and that these firms are registered in port cities that are located near the Russia-China border. The agency says the companies all use the name of a Chinese port city in their names, such as Raohe, Fuyuan, Jixi City, Xunke, Tongjiang, and Donging, and that the official name of the companies also include the words “economic and trade,” “trade,” and “LTD”. The recipient entities usually hold accounts with a the Agricultural Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and the Bank of China.

From the advisory (PDF):

“In a typical scenario, the computer of a person within a company who can initiate funds transfers on behalf of the U.S. business is compromised by either a phishing email or by visiting a malicious Web site. The malware harvests the user’s corporate online banking credentials. When the authorized user attempts to log in to the user’s bank Web site, the user is typically redirected to another Web page stating that the bank Web site is under maintenance or is unable to access the accounts. While the user is experiencing logon issues, malicious actors initiate the unauthorized transfers to commercial accounts held at intermediary banks typically located in New York. Account funds are then transferred to the Chinese economic and trade company bank account.”

The alert said the unauthorized wires range in value from $50,000 to $985,000. While most transfers tend to be toward the upper end of that spectrum, “the malicious actors have been more successful in receiving the funds when the unauthorized wire transfers were under $500,000.” In addition, the attackers initiated fraudulent automated clearing house (ACH) transfers to money mules in the United States within minutes of conducting the overseas wire transfers.

According to the alert, the thieves  used a variety of malicious software to steal victim online banking credentials, including the ZeuS Trojan, backdoor.bot and Spybot, all malware families that let the crooks steal passwords and control infected systems remotely.

None of this should be news to anyone who has followed my reporting on this type of crime. I’ve written more than 70 stories over the past two years about these type of attacks. Earlier this year, victims at three Iowa banks lost about $2 million in a series of fraudulent wire transfers to Hong Kong. Last fall, thieves stole close to $1 million in a single fraudulent wire transfer from the University of Virginia to the Agricultural Bank of China.

It is vital for small business owners to understand the risks they face when banking online, and to get a sense of the sophistication of today’s attackers. Unlike consumers — businesses do not have the same protection against fraud that consumers enjoy. Indeed, most companies that get hit with this type of fraud quickly figure out that their banks are under no legal obligation to reimburse them. Small business owners wondering what they can do to protect themselves should read the tips at this post. One of the surest ways that business owners can avoid becoming the next victim is for the person handling the company’s books to bank online only from a dedicated machine — preferably one that is not Windows-based (since all of the malware used in the attacks to date won’t run on anything but Windows). Using a Mac or a Live CD approach may seem expensive or impractical, but losing hundreds of thousands of dollars because your PC got a virus infection isn’t so great either.

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