As COVID-19 cases unfortunately continue to spike around parts of the U.S., remote work will likely be around for longer than anyone expected. Indeed, many companies have already said that employees will not return to the office for the rest of the year, and some have even set summer 2021 as their return date.

In this ongoing virtual environment, organizations remain highly vulnerable to the significant cybersecurity risks exposed by widespread remote work - business email compromise (BEC), in particular.

How did business email compromise become such a serious threat for organizations, and why should cyber insurance be top of mind right now, as a result? Let’s dive in.


What is business email compromise, and why is it a top threat today

To start with the basics, BEC is a form of social engineering by which a cybercriminal e-mails with a company employee (impersonating a CEO, vendor or fellow employee, usually through the use of a spoofing mail header or lookalike domain), gains their trust and encourages actions detrimental to the interests of the company or its clients. These actions include a range of things, such as the transfer of funds or sharing of confidential files.

Who is doing this, and why? Historically, threat intelligence groups saw the majority of BEC attacks emanating out of West Africa, but recently Russian cybercrime groups appear to have shifted some focus to BEC attacks. Their motivation is simple - easy money. The return on investment for basic social engineering attacks is much higher than more sophisticated malware-based attacks. Indeed, in 2019, the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center received 23,775 Business Email Compromise (BEC) / Email Account Compromise (EAC) complaints with adjusted losses of over $1.7 billion.

A BEC attack can also be a route to a more serious data breach - cybercriminals can leverage compromised business emails to gain a foothold in the organization and eventually launch a ransomware attack.

BEC attacks were certainly occurring pre-COVID, so why is this a top concern right now? First, organizations are simply at a higher level of cyber risk during this time, because of the increased use of personal devices and home Wi-Fi networks for work purposes. With less company control over the devices and networks, there may be fewer safeguards in place to prevent a BEC attack.

Additionally, team members simply getting in touch with one another during an urgent situation can be difficult right now. With unusual work schedules, parents juggling full time work and child care, and other factors, it may be harder to get everyone who needs to be informed and consulted about a BEC attack onto the same call at the same time. You can no longer tap everyone to huddle in a conference room.

Cybercriminals of course know of this higher level of vulnerability, and are likely to prey on it. That’s why it is more important than ever to be prepared for a BEC attack.


How organizations can protect themselves & mitigate BEC impact

First, it must be said: preventing an email compromise is the best way to avoid dealing with all of the fallout that comes with one.

While not a silver bullet, you’ll hear anyone in the information security industry tell you there’s one thing - a relatively simple one, too - above all else when it comes to preventing BEC: multi-factor authentication (MFA). All major email providers offer MFA as an option, and organizations should make it mandatory for all employees and users of their email system. This takes away the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of opportunities for criminals to exploit weak passwords. If your email system is managed in-house rather than by Google or Microsoft, setting up MFA as well as an additional level of security, like a secure email gateway technology, is the next step.

Cybersecurity education for employees is also critical to protecting your organization. Make sure your team is familiar with what lookalike domains and spoofing mail headers look like, so that they are more likely to identify these signs if an attack occurs.

Now, if you have experienced a compromise, there are a number of immediate things to do. First, contact your financial institution - the more quickly your organization identifies a fraudulent funds transfer and reaches out to the financial institution, the greater likelihood you’ll recover the funds. You should also gather all information there is about the attack and fill out an IC3 form.

One way you can guarantee reducing the impact of a BEC incident is having the right insurance. Traditional business insurance policies typically either exclude cyberattacks from coverage or provide only a token level of coverage with a low sub-limit that won’t be enough to make your business whole after a major incident. Your broker can help you find a Cyber Liability policy from a reputable carrier that has specific protections for BEC, namely coverage for funds transfer fraud or cybercrime. A great thing about these policies is that not only do they pay out claims, they will typically offer access to expert help and resources needed in responding to an incident, so that you don’t have to go it alone.

As we have discussed, organizations are at an increased level of cyber risk in this environment, and even a simple BEC attack can be very costly. To be on the offensive, cyber insurance should be top of mind for organizations. Just like the fight with the virus, now is the time to be proactive, not reactive.