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fraud

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On Financial Fraud

There are some good lessons in this article on financial fraud:

That’s how we got it so wrong. We were looking for incidental breaches of technical regulations, not systematic crime. And the thing is, that’s normal. The nature of fraud is that it works outside your field of vision, subverting the normal checks and balances so that the world changes while the picture stays the same. People in financial markets have been missing the wood for the trees for as long as there have been markets.

[..]

Trust — particularly between complete strangers, with no interactions beside relatively anonymous market transactions — is the basis of the modern industrial economy. And the story of the development of the modern economy is in large part the story of the invention and improvement of technologies and institutions for managing that trust.

And as industrial society develops, it becomes easier to be a victim. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith described how prosperity derived from the division of labour — the 18 distinct operations that went into the manufacture of a pin, for example. While this was going on, the modern world also saw a growing division of trust. The more a society benefits from the division of labour in checking up on things, the further you can go into a con game before you realise that you’re in one.

[…]

Libor teaches us a valuable lesson about commercial fraud — that unlike other crimes, it has a problem of denial as well as one of detection. There are very few other criminal acts where the victim not only consents to the criminal act, but voluntarily transfers the money or valuable goods to the criminal. And the hierarchies, status distinctions and networks that make up a modern economy also create powerful psychological barriers against seeing fraud when it is happening. White-collar crime is partly defined by the kind of person who commits it: a person of high status in the community, the kind of person who is always given the benefit of the doubt.

[…]

Fraudsters don’t play on moral weaknesses, greed or fear; they play on weaknesses in the system of checks and balances — the audit processes that are meant to supplement an overall environment of trust. One point that comes up again and again when looking at famous and large-scale frauds is that, in many cases, everything could have been brought to a halt at a very early stage if anyone had taken care to confirm all the facts. But nobody does confirm all the facts. There are just too bloody many of them. Even after the financial rubble has settled and the arrests been made, this is a huge problem.

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1834: The First Cyberattack

Tom Standage has a great story of the first cyberattack against a telegraph network.

The Blanc brothers traded government bonds at the exchange in the city of Bordeaux, where information about market movements took several days to arrive from Paris by mail coach. Accordingly, traders who could get the information more quickly could make money by anticipating these movements. Some tried using messengers and carrier pigeons, but the Blanc brothers found a way to use the telegraph line instead. They bribed the telegraph operator in the city of Tours to introduce deliberate errors into routine government messages being sent over the network.

The telegraph’s encoding system included a “backspace” symbol that instructed the transcriber to ignore the previous character. The addition of a spurious character indicating the direction of the previous day’s market movement, followed by a backspace, meant the text of the message being sent was unaffected when it was written out for delivery at the end of the line. But this extra character could be seen by another accomplice: a former telegraph operator who observed the telegraph tower outside Bordeaux with a telescope, and then passed on the news to the Blancs. The scam was only uncovered in 1836, when the crooked operator in Tours fell ill and revealed all to a friend, who he hoped would take his place. The Blanc brothers were put on trial, though they could not be convicted because there was no law against misuse of data networks. But the Blancs’ pioneering misuse of the French network qualifies as the world’s first cyber-attack.

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Kidnapping Fraud

Fake kidnapping fraud:

“Most commonly we have unsolicited calls to potential victims in Australia, purporting to represent the people in authority in China and suggesting to intending victims here they have been involved in some sort of offence in China or elsewhere, for which they’re being held responsible,” Commander McLean said.

The scammers threaten the students with deportation from Australia or some kind of criminal punishment.

The victims are then coerced into providing their identification details or money to get out of the supposed trouble they’re in.

Commander McLean said there are also cases where the student is told they have to hide in a hotel room, provide compromising photos of themselves and cut off all contact.

This simulates a kidnapping.

“So having tricked the victims in Australia into providing the photographs, and money and documents and other things, they then present the information back to the unknowing families in China to suggest that their children who are abroad are in trouble,” Commander McLean said.

“So quite circular in a sense…very skilled, very cunning.”

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Maliciously Changing Someone’s Address

Someone changed the address of UPS corporate headquarters to his own apartment in Chicago. The company discovered it three months later.

The problem, of course, is that in the US there isn’t any authentication of change-of-address submissions:

According to the Postal Service, nearly 37 million change-of-address requests ­ known as PS Form 3575 ­ were submitted in 2017. The form, which can be filled out in person or online, includes a warning below the signature line that “anyone submitting false or inaccurate information” could be subject to fines and imprisonment.

To cut down on possible fraud, post offices send a validation letter to both an old and new address when a change is filed. The letter includes a toll-free number to call to report anything suspicious.

Each year, only a tiny fraction of the requests are ever referred to postal inspectors for investigation. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service could not provide a specific number to the Tribune, but officials have previously said that the number of change-of-address investigations in a given year totals 1,000 or fewer typically.

While fraud involving change-of-address forms has long been linked to identity thieves, the targets are usually unsuspecting individuals, not massive corporations.

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Facebook Will Verify the Physical Location of Ad Buyers with Paper Postcards

It’s not a great solution, but it’s something:

The process of using postcards containing a specific code will be required for advertising that mentions a specific candidate running for a federal office, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global director of policy programs, said. The requirement will not apply to issue-based political ads, she said.

“If you run an ad mentioning a candidate, we are going to mail you a postcard and you will have to use that code to prove you are in the United States,” Harbath said at a weekend conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State, where executives from Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google also spoke.

“It won’t solve everything,” Harbath said in a brief interview with Reuters following her remarks.

But sending codes through old-fashioned mail was the most effective method the tech company could come up with to prevent Russians and other bad actors from purchasing ads while posing as someone else, Harbath said.

It does mean a several-days delay between purchasing an ad and seeing it run.

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Cybercriminals Infiltrating E-Mail Networks to Divert Large Customer Payments

There’s a new criminal tactic involving hacking an e-mail account of a company that handles high-value transactions and diverting payments. Here it is in real estate:

The scam generally works like this: Hackers find an opening into a title company’s or realty agent’s email account, track upcoming home purchases scheduled for settlements — the pricier the better — then assume the identity of the title agency person handling the transaction.

Days or sometimes weeks before the settlement, the scammer poses as the title or escrow agent whose email accounts they’ve hijacked and instructs the home buyer to wire the funds needed to close — often hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes far more — to the criminals’ own bank accounts, not the title or escrow company’s legitimate accounts. The criminals then withdraw the money and vanish.

Here it is in fine art:

The fraud is relatively simple. Criminals hack into an art dealer’s email account and monitor incoming and outgoing correspondence. When the gallery sends a PDF invoice to a client via email following a sale, the conversation is hijacked. Posing as the gallery, hackers send a duplicate, fraudulent invoice from the same gallery email address, with an accompanying message instructing the client to disregard the first invoice and instead wire payment to the account listed in the fraudulent document.

Once money has been transferred to the criminals’ account, the hackers move the money to avoid detection and then disappear. The same technique is used to intercept payments made by galleries to their artists and others. Because the hackers gain access to the gallery’s email contacts, the scam can spread quickly, with fraudulent emails appearing to come from known sources.

I’m sure it’s happening in other industries as well, probably even with business-to-business commerce.

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