Chief Human Resources Officer Impersonated in Identity Theft Scheme

Identity theft is not a joke, impacting more than 14 million people each year in the United States alone. Over the course of their lifetime, nearly one-third of all people will become victims of identity theft—often as a result of a corporate data breach.

Once attackers have access to identifying information like your full name, address, date of birth, and/or social security number, they can use it to steal everything from your health records to the money in your savings account. In many cases, they can also use it to open new credit cards or utility accounts in your name, steal your health records, or run additional scams on your friends and family. 

In a recent attack detected by Abnormal, we saw an attempt to steal the identities of high-powered executives. Let’s take a look and uncover why new attacks like these are on the rise.

Summary of Attack

Platform: Office 365

Victims: C-Suite Executives

Payload: Text

Technique: VIP Impersonation

About the Identity Theft Attempt

In this attack, the organization’s most high-profile executives received an email claiming to come from their Chief Human Resources Officer. It asked them to provide a primary identification document such as a passport or driver’s license. If they do not provide that information, the message states that they will miss the next payroll.

This message did not in fact come from the Chief Human Resources Officer—or from anyone within the organization. The sender address was, an email address that any individual with an Apple device could create for free. This sender then changed their display name to that of the Chief Human Resources Officer so that they could more easily deceive this message’s recipients.

This email could be quite effective as a vehicle for identity theft if it were to reach the intended mailboxes. The urgent tone of the message, especially the implied threat of missing a paycheck for noncompliance, encourages recipients to respond quickly without first taking proper precautions. While some people would likely check to see if the sender’s display name and email address matched what they expected, others may simply send the information in a rush between meetings—without first verifying the sender. As an added complication, this type of message is one that people would expect to come from a human resources department, so it doesn’t raise as much immediate suspicion as it may if it appeared to come from the CEO or other executive. 

Had any of the recipients responded with an image of their primary ID, the attacker could very easily have used that information to steal the recipient’s identity. The attacker would then have full access to the recipient’s bank accounts, credit cards, credit score, health insurance, and more. Because these recipients were all executives, an identity compromise on their part could not only ruin them financially, but could have resulted in significant harm to the company’s reputation.

Why It Bypassed Existing Security Infrastructure

This attack bypassed other email security software employed by this Abnormal customer. One potential reason for this is that this attack type is relatively new. Most VIP impersonation attacks like this try to redirect paychecks or otherwise convince recipients to immediately transfer large sums of money to accounts owned by the threat actor.

Instead, this attacker was aiming for the somewhat more difficult task of profiting off of a stolen identity rather than stolen funds. Because this attack does not necessarily provide immediate benefits and is thus more rare, many existing security systems do not look for the type of language contained in this message. 

On the other hand, Abnormal understood that this email came from a suspicious sender and recognized that the language may be trying to steal personal information. Without this added layer of security, the executives targeted by this email would’ve been at risk, and could have lost their identity, financial security, and reputation—something many would consider to be even worse than losing just money. 

Unfortunately for those targeted, social engineering attacks such as this one are on the rise and unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future. Without proper precautions, including an email security system that can detect unusual activity and suspicious language, a single lapse in judgement could result in life-altering negative consequences.

Interested in seeing how Abnormal can prevent email-based identity theft for your executives and employees? Request a demo to see the product in action.

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