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Business email compromise is when criminals use email to abuse trust in business processes to scam organisations out of money or goods. Criminals can impersonate business representatives using similar names, domains and/or fraudulent logos as a legitimate organisation or by using compromised email accounts and pretending to be a trusted co-worker.

Introduction

Business email compromise is when criminals use email to abuse trust in business processes to scam organisations out of money or goods. Criminals can impersonate business representatives using similar names, domains and/or fraudulent logos as a legitimate organisation or by using compromised email accounts and pretending to be a trusted co-worker.

Common scams associated with business email compromise include:

  • Invoice fraud: Criminals compromise a vendor’s email account and through it have access to legitimate invoices. The criminals then edit contact and bank details on those invoices and send them to customers with the compromised email account. The customer pays the invoice, thinking they are paying the vendor, but instead send that money to criminals’ bank accounts.
  • Employee impersonation: Criminals compromise a work email account and impersonate a co-worker via email. Criminals can use this identity to commit fraud in a number of ways. One common method is to impersonate a person in power (such as a Chief Executive Officer or Chief Financial Officer) and have a false invoice raised. Another method is to request a change to a worker’s banking details. The funds from the false invoice or the worker's salary is then sent to criminals’ bank accounts.
  • Company impersonation: Criminals register a domain with a name very similar to a large, known and trusted organisation. Criminals then impersonate the organisation in an email to a vendor and request a quote for a quantity of expensive goods, like laptops. Criminals negotiate for the goods to be delivered to them prior to payment. The goods are delivered to a specified location, however, the invoice is sent to the legitimate organisation, who never ordered or received the goods.

How do I prevent my email accounts being compromised?

Be vigilant against phishing

Phishing (pronounced ‘fishing’) are scams that are made to appear as if they were sent from individuals or organisations you think you know, or you think you should trust. Criminals can steal credentials using phishing techniques and then do further harm, using those compromised credentials to login and send out malicious or fraudulent content to your contacts.

Phishing is not just limited to email. These scams are delivered via SMS, instant messaging and social media, and pretend to be trusted organisations like:

  • state and territory police or law enforcement
  • utilities such as telecommunications, postal services, power and gas companies
  • banks and other financial institutions
  • government departments, such as the Australian Taxation Office, Centrelink and Medicare, or government services such as myGov.

Reputable organisations will not call, SMS or email to verify or update your information. This includes companies such as Amazon, PayPal, Google, Apple and Facebook. When you receive unsolicited contact from organisations, there are a number of simple things you can do to keep yourself safe.

  • Check details such as the spelling of a sender's domain name. Double-check by comparing it to previous correspondence.
  • Use spam and message scanning services offered by your email, SMS or social media providers to filter potentially harmful content.
  • Exercise critical thinking and vigilance when receiving phone calls, messages and emails.
  • Exercise caution opening messages or attachments, and clicking on links from unknown senders.
  • Do not provide personal information (such as usernames, PINs, passwords, passphrases or secret/security questions and answers) to unverified sources.

Many organisations have security pages that identify active scams using their branding. If a message seems suspicious, contact the person or organisation separately, using contact details you have verified separately (for example, obtaining the phone number from the organisation’s official website) to check if they are likely to have sent the message.

For more information on phishing, see the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC)’s Detecting Socially Engineered Messages publication, and stay informed by signing up to the ACSC Alert Service.

Additional information about the latest scams can also be found on the Australian Government’s Scamwatch website.

Use multi-factor authentication and strong passphrases

Use multi-factor authentication so that workers can authenticate their credentials when accessing business email and systems. Multi-factor authentication is one of the most effective security controls you can implement to prevent unauthorised access to computers, applications and online services. Using multiple forms of authentication makes it much harder to access your systems. Criminals might manage to steal one type of credential but it is very difficult to steal the correct combination of several credentials for any given account.

Multi-factor authentication can use a combination of:

  • something the user knows (a passphrase, PIN or an answer to a secret question)
  • something the user physically possesses (such as a smartcard, physical token or security key)
  • something the user inherently possesses (such as a fingerprint or retina pattern).

For more information on multi-factor authentication, see the ACSC’s Implementing Multi-Factor Authentication publication.

Finally, encourage workers to create strong passphrases and always use a biometric, PIN or passphrase to lock your devices – especially the portable ones. For more information on creating strong passphrases, see the ACSC’s Small Business Cyber Security Guide.

Have protective business processes in place

Establish a clear and consistent business process for workers to verify and validate requests for payment and sensitive information. Protect worker contact details from the public, particularly departments that are likely to be targeted by scams, such as accounts, finances or human resources teams.

Ensure workers are aware of following warning signs:

  • an unexpected change of bank details
  • an urgent payment request or threats of serious consequences if payment isn't made
  • unexpected payment requests from someone in a position of authority, particularly if payment requests are unusual from this person
  • an email address that doesn't look quite right, such as the domain name not exactly matching the supplier's company name.

Ensure workers have clear guidance to verify account details, to think critically before actioning unusual requests, and have a reporting process to report threatening demands for immediate action, pressure for secrecy or requests to circumvent protective business processes.

Help combat your business reputation from being used in scams

Develop and maintain good security controls. Criminals can gain access to a legitimate email account by compromising your systems. Follow the ACSC’s Essential Eight and implement the security controls detailed in the ACSC's Essential Eight Maturity Model, particularly on computers used by your finance, human resources and senior executive teams.

Consider registering domains that look similar to your organisation's (for example, replace letters such as ‘l’ and ‘o’ in your organisation’s name with digits such as ‘1’ and ‘0’). This will help prevent criminals from scamming others by using a domain that looks similar to yours. You can check for domains masquerading as your business by monitoring certificate transparency logs. There are also commercial entities that will provide this service.

If you manage your own email server and domain, implement email verification. Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and Domain Message Authentication Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) are controls designed to detect fake emails by specifying which mail servers are authorised to send emails on behalf of an organisation's domain. For more information on how to implement SPF and DMARC, see the ACSC’s How to Combat Fake Emails publication.

How do I recover from business email compromise?

If you have been the victim of business email compromise, follow the following steps as soon as possible:

  • if you've sent money or banking details to a scammer, contact your bank immediately
  • report the incident via ReportCyber
  • if any of your email accounts have been compromised, change your password for your email account(s), notify anyone affected, and protect your stakeholders with a warning notice on your website informing people of the scam.

Further information

The Australian Government Information Security Manual (ISM) assists in the protection of information that is processed, stored or communicated by organisations’ systems.

The Strategies to Mitigate Cyber Security Incidents complements the advice in the ISM.

Contact details

If you have any questions regarding this guidance you can contact us via 1300 CYBER1 (1300 292 371).