Google and Facebook got tricked out of $123 million by a common scam that targets small businesses

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Most cyber attacks cause reputational or competitive harm. A company might see client details, customer social security numbers or secret business plans exposed on the internet. That can be painful, but usually doesn’t cause immediate financial harm.

Invoice fraud results in an immediate financial loss. And it’s on the rise.

According to the FBI, the amount of money that scammers attempted to steal through business e-mail compromise grew 136% between December 2016 and May 2018. Overall, e-mail scammers targeted more than $12 billion worldwide between October 2013 and May 2018.

In a typical invoice fraud, hackers take over or convincingly spoof the email address of a known business partner, like an attorney or vendor. The criminal may carefully monitor the usual interactions and payment processes between the business and the other party. Then, the criminal sends a convincing invoice or asks for a wire transfer for services rendered. Often, the business’s accounting office doesn’t realize it’s fraud and releases the funds.

That was the case with one owner of a small accounting firm in Brooklyn, New York, who wished to remain anonymous. In 2016 and 2017, an administrative assistant received several emails from an email address that appeared to belong to a business partner requesting payment for legal services, with wire addresses at legitimate banks. The assistant was in charge of releasing funds for routine invoices and complied. The scam cost the firm nearly $700,000 in one year — about half his average yearly revenue.

The owner says wasn’t able to recover the money because he had willingly sent the funds, and banks typically don’t make customers whole for this type of fraud. He contemplated declaring bankruptcy, but instead tightened his belt and carried on.

“I just ate it instead,” he said. “And basically stopped doing any business over the email.”

The accountant’s experience is typical.

Invoice fraud has become so common that when denim company Diesel Jeans filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, the company cited invoice fraud for contributing significantly to its financial woes. Prior to that, scammers successfully impersonated Mattel’s CEO in a series of email compromise scams that led to $3 million in losses for the company.

In 2017, a commodities trading firm called Tillage Commodities LLC, based in Connecticut, lost 64 percent of its total capital to business email compromise over the course of just 21 days. The company was later fined $150,000 by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission for failing to supervise its funds.

In Google and Facebook’s cases, a Lithuanian national named Evaldas Rimasauskas — who pleaded guilty to wire fraud on March 20 — spent two years posing as a third party who conducted business with the two companies. The fraud was highly involved, and the tech giants’ money took a round-the-world trip to be laundered before ending up in Rimasauskas’s hands.

Google and Facebook wired funds to Rimasauskas’ “bank accounts in Latvia and Cyprus,” who then, “quickly wired [the funds] into different bank accounts in various locations throughout the world, including Latvia, Cyprus, Slovakia, Lithuania, Hungary, and Hong Kong,” according to the Justice Department.

Rimasauskas “forged invoices, contracts, and letters that falsely appeared to have been executed and signed by executives and agents of [Google and Facebook], and which bore false corporate stamps embossed with [their] names, to be submitted to banks in support of the large volume of funds that were fraudulently transmitted via wire transfer.”

Google lost around $23 million in the scam, while Facebook was out $100 million.

“Facebook recovered the bulk of the funds shortly after the incident and has been cooperating with law enforcement in its investigation,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

According to a Google spokesperson, “We detected this fraud and promptly alerted the authorities. We recouped the funds and we’re pleased this matter is resolved.”

Neither company explained to CNBC how they were able to recover the stolen funds. In most cases, they’re lost forever.

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