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FBI sounds alarm over America's largest internet theft

Attacks have cost Americans $9 billion between 2016 and 2021
Posted at 6:41 AM, Jul 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-14 19:38:39-04

TAMPA, Fla. — The FBI calls the Business Email Compromise the largest internet fraud in the country. It's a crime that has devastated families and ravaged small businesses, and the losses are hitting record highs.

“It is the top fraud in terms of number of complaints. It is the top fraud in terms of dollar amount that occurs,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Keith Givens told the ABC Action News I-Team.

Between 2016 and 2021 more than 59,000 Americans lost more than $9 billion to the fraud known as BEC. Put another way, the $9 billion in losses could buy 180,000 cars valued at $50,000.

Another way to conceive $9 billion is that customers have lost $47.56 every second from 2016 to 2021 to the BEC.

And according to the FBI’s annual fraud report, BEC losses total more than double the next costliest con in the nation, romance scams.

Here's how the scam unfolds:

  • Criminals first hack a legitimate business email
  • The attacker then clones the email
  • The scammer then uses the cloned email to target individuals who would normally transfer funds to that business (the most common being real estate transactions)

For example, a criminal would hack a legitimate real estate-related business. They would then impersonate those entities online through emails and trick home buyers into wiring tens of thousands of dollars to the wrong account.

The Henkel family, who live in Polk County, lost their life savings last year in a BEC attack. Brendan Henkel said he was in the middle of purchasing a new home when a hacker impersonated his title company via email and sent bogus wiring instructions. The family lost $49,000 in the scam.

"It has been probably the hardest thing I have gone through in my life," Brendan told the I-Team.

Supervisory Special Agent Givens heads up a newly created FBI-BEC-focused unit in Orlando. It's the only team of its kind in Central and West Florida. The FBI granted the I-Team exclusive access to the team made up of two forensic accountants, Pablo Vera and Mayra Williams.

Every day, Vera and Williams fight a race against time to claw back millions in stolen funds and return that money to victims in Florida. Their success rate runs between 40 and 70%.

One of the keys to any possible success is timely reporting. Williams told the I-team victims who immediately report their losses to the bank and then the FBI’s online reporting portal stands the best shot of getting their money back.

“The sooner they make that phone call or file that complaint the better the chances they will recover,” Williams said.

Vera and Williams said they rely on all of the victim's information, along with a network of banks and other partners around the world to help track down stolen funds.

BEC victim Berry Preston, a Sarasota real estate investor, landed in the FBI’s win column last year after a hacker posed as a real estate attorney and tricked Preston out of nearly $300,000.

“They were clearly able to see the email exchanges going on,” Preston said.

The FBI worked on both Brendan Henkel and Barry Preston’s cases. Unfortunately, they were not able to retrieve Henkel's funds.

Preston told the I-Team he thought the money was gone for good. He said it was the first and last time he did not verify wiring instructions by phone with the person he was doing business with.

“It doesn't matter how often you do this, how sophisticated you think you are; you still must be careful," Preston said.

So, where does all of the money go? According to the FBI, banks located in Thailand and Hong Kong were the primary international destinations in 2021.