It is no longer news that cybersecurity is one of the top risks facing organizations today. Cyber criminals are exhibiting increasingly ingenious tactics to hack public and private databases that contain millions of individuals’ private records.
Organizations globally are working diligently to gird themselves against these increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks and developing crisis management plans to deal with any attacks that succeed. Yet there is a growing threat from cyber criminals that requires little more than access to the Internet, a bit of brazen ingenuity, and the hope that some overworked finance executives might not be on their toes. I’m talking about a basic email scheme that has resulted in billions of dollars in business losses.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) posted an alert about the ubiquitous “phishing” scheme where a cyber criminal poses as a company executive and directs an employee — typically someone in finance — to initiate an emergency wire transfer. According to the alert, this simple scam recently led to “massive financial losses” in the Phoenix, Ariz. area in the U.S., and the number of overall victims it has claimed has jumped 270 percent since January 2015. Indeed, there were nearly 18,000 identified victims of business email compromise scams between Oct. 2013 and Feb. 2016, with losses topping USD $2.3 billion, according to the FBI.
This is not just a U.S. problem. Law enforcement has received complaints from victims in at least 79 countries.
No business is immune from becoming a target. Victims reporting thefts to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center range from large corporations to tech companies to small businesses. Many times these “phishing trips” target businesses with foreign suppliers or those that use wire transfer frequently.
This type of scheme hit close to home this month when The IIA’s chief financial officer (CFO) received a directive from what appeared to be my email account seeking an immediate wire transfer. She became suspicious and reached out to me before taking any action and confirmed the email did not come from me. However, this serves as a good example of just how easily these schemes can be put together.
Something as benign as LinkedIn can provide the names and email addresses of a company’s CEO and CFO. All that remains is doing a little homework about the company and its financial practices, and a crafty cyber criminal can be rewarded with a major payday. According to the FBI, the average take in the Arizona scam was USD $50,000.
Internal auditors should be on the front line in protecting organizations from succumbing to these kinds of scams, and it shouldn’t be a heavy lift for most audit functions. Here are some easy steps organizations can take to protect themselves:
This last tip is crucial in boosting employee sensitivity to suspect emails. A high-profile U.S. federal inspector general, who spoke at a recent IIA conference, said she routinely sends phishing emails to unsuspecting staff within her organization to test their compliance with rules about sharing sensitive information or clicking on inviting links embedded in emails.
I have written on several occasions that the pace of technological change has created ever-more-complex risks for organizations, and I’ve urged internal auditors to learn to audit at the speed of risk. The battle against email phishing schemes is the low-hanging fruit in that high-tech garden. A strong partnership with IT, effective governance practices, and a regimen of staff training and testing of those practices can significantly lower the risk of your organization becoming the next victim of an email phishing scheme.
I welcome your comments.