Thieves managed to trick the Puerto Rico government into making $2.6 million worth of payments to the wrong recipient in an elaborate phishing scheme.
Tricking local government officials into making payments to bogus accounts is not as uncommon as you might think. It’s usually done through a targeted phishing campaign. The right precautions should make it next to impossible, but a combination of carelessness, incompetence, and lack of training in identifying BEC scams (business email compromise) or social engineering can create a perfect storm.
The victim in Puerto Rico was the Industrial Development Company. The authorities have released very little information about the incident, just that an email received on January 17 prompted an employee to change the banking account for remittance payments.
“This is a very serious situation, extremely serious,” said Manuel Laboy, the Industrial Development Company, in an interview with The AP. “We want it to be investigated until the last consequences. I cannot speculate about how these things might happen.”
It’s still unclear whether they can trace the account holder or how they found out about the payments. Just last month, a similar incident was reported in the town of Erie, Colorado, which was defrauded of $1.1 million.
The method used in both incidents is similar to BEC scams, with a few minor differences. In BEC events, bad actors impersonate someone in the company who was previously targeted, to persuade the financial department, for example, to make a payment.
In the case of these governments, someone impersonates a point of contact from a company that has a contract with the city and asks for change in payments, usually by diverting the funds to another account.