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Bank Fraud: Itís Not Personal, Just Business

Less publicized (but nonetheless costly) incidents of fraud, questions of liability, and mixed success in court complicate the allocation of security resources.

High-profile breaches of consumer data have been in the news lately, with Neiman Marcus, Michael's, and Target each losing hundreds of thousands to millions of payment card details. As of last week it looks as if we will be able to add P.F. Chang’s to that list as well.

Much of the media coverage of these events has revolved around the impact on consumers and what consumers should do to protect themselves, but the reality of these breaches is that the consumers are the least likely to be affected: Federal law limits liability for fraudulent credit or debit card purchases to $50 in most cases (with the condition that the loss or theft of the card is reported promptly in the case of debit cards). The real impact of these breaches has been on the companies that have been compromised. Target reported $61 million in total breach expenses during the quarter of the breach, and this number is sure to grow as time goes on.

There is another type of financial fraud that is hitting companies as well: wire transfer fraud. This type of fraud costs approximately $1 billion per year but generally doesn’t get the media coverage we have seen with recent personal information breaches, perhaps because it doesn’t involve millions of individuals’ payment card numbers or because breach notifications usually aren’t required if a consumer’s personal information isn’t lost.

The ploy is fairly simple, an attacker gains access to a commercial bank account, wires as much money as possible to another bank account, and withdraws the stolen money before the unauthorized transfer is noticed. Often the recipient bank accounts and withdrawals are handled by unwitting “mules” who answer the “Work From Home!” ads that seem to be plastered all over the Internet and on telephone poles across the country. The mules believe they are working for a legitimate company handling office finances when in reality they are withdrawing the stolen money and forwarding it to the overseas (usually somewhere in Eastern Europe) masterminds behind the scheme.

Unlike personal consumer bank accounts, which fall under FDIC regulations and have the same federal liability limits as debit cards ($50 if the bank is notified within 2 days and $500 if the bank is notified within 60 days), there is essentially unlimited liability for commercial bank accounts. It is entirely possible for an entire bank account to be cleaned out in a matter of hours. In 2009 Experi-Metal Inc., a Michigan based company, had $5.2 million wired out of its account at Comerica in a single day. The bank was able to recover most of the money because the transactions had been detected by fraud-alerting algorithms, but Experi-Metal was still left short by $561,000.

Experi-Metal’s story is fairly typical, most victims are left with losses in excess of $100,000. This seems like a pittance compared to the Target losses, but it could be a devastating blow for a small or midsized business with a much smaller revenue stream than the $21.5 billion Target reported during the same quarter as the recent breach. These attacks are happening regularly, and they aren’t just targeting businesses: Public schools, libraries, universities, and non-profits have all been victimized in this manner.

Most banks accept no liability for the missing money, because the breaches are occurring on the customer’s computer systems, not the bank's. These can range from a simple phishing attack in which an email purporting to be from the bank attempts to trick an unwitting user into directly revealing his or her banking passwords to complex botnets made up of malware-infected computers around the world waiting to capture these credentials.

Law enforcement does try to break up these fraud networks when they can, but it can take years. With many of the perpetrators targeting US businesses but operating out of foreign countries, it can be difficult for US law enforcement to find the masterminds behind the operation and get the quick cooperation they would need to effect any meaningful arrests. Businesses certainly shouldn’t hold out any hope that these modern-day bank robbers will be caught and their money returned.

Some businesses have tried to fight back against the banks in court with mixed success. Patco Construction Co. of Maine lost $588,000 in 2009 and, after repeatedly losing in lower courts, was able to win a judgment from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2012 forcing the bank to cover tits losses. On the other hand, Choice Escrow and Land Title LLC of Missouri also lost $440,000 in 2009, and on June 11, 2014, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that not only was the bank not responsible for the losses, but that the bank can pursue Choice Escrow to pay for its legal defense costs. Given the potential losses from a breach and the expensive, uncertain, and lengthy nature of attempting to recover funds from a bank it is clear that businesses need to focus on protecting themselves from fraudulent transfers.

Malware and botnets are an enormous threat on the Internet today, and many of them are designed to steal financial details in order to facilitate wire transfer fraud. The ZeuS botnet alone (the same piece of malware that caused the Patco breach described above) is estimated to have stolen $70 million over its lifetime. NTT Com Security’s Global Threat Intelligence Report shows that botnets were responsible for the largest proportion of attacks happening on the Internet in 2013 with 34% of the total. Disturbingly, the same report also shows that 54% to 71% of malware is not detected by antivirus software, which highlights an underlying security issue: Installing antivirus and tossing a firewall on the network is not enough to prevent these types of attacks.

Christopher Camejo is an integral part of the Consulting leadership team for NTT Com Security, one of the largest security consulting organizations in the world. He directs NTT Com Security's assessment services including ethical hacking and compliance assessments. Mr. Camejo ... View Full Bio
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