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Email scams have cost Utah businesses more than $20M this year, FBI warns

With two alleged scammers set to stand trial in Salt Lake City, the FBI is warning other Utah business owners from falling into similar email fraud scams.
With two alleged scammers set to stand trial in Salt Lake City, the FBI is warning other Utah business owners from falling into similar email fraud scams.
Devon Yu, Adobe Stock

SALT LAKE CITY — With two alleged scammers set to stand trial in Salt Lake City in the coming months, the FBI is warning Utah business owners about falling into email fraud schemes.

"In 2017, 150 different Utah businesses reported cumulative losses of $5 million" from such schemes, said Jeffrey Collins, the FBI special agent in charge of the cyber task force in Salt Lake City.

"This year, we've already had well over $20 million — so it's rising."

The FBI is trying to prevent business email compromise schemes in Utah — crimes where scammers will target both businesses and individuals performing wire transfer payments.

A scammer gets access to a legitimate business account, either by hacking or other means, then poses as a supervisor or CEO and requests an urgent company wire transfer to an account.

Scammers can also create a dummy account after doing some spying by hacking into an account. They will then impersonate a real email account with a slight misspelling or will use a dot-net email instead of dot-com.

"Please i will need you to take care of a financial obligation quickly. What is the required information needed for you to process a domestic wire transfer? Regards, (Redacted)," one such email obtained by the FBI reads from a Utah business about to be scammed.

In this instance, the scammer, posing as a higher-up, gave the employee the details of a bank account and requested an unknown amount. An email later, the employee, thinking he or she was corresponding with the boss, replied that the transfer was handled.

"I see numerous complaints come in per week where businesses have lost $100,000; $200,000," Collins said. "We had one recently — $20 million."

"Sometimes this money is lost in just a few emails," Collins said. "That's all it takes for someone to be defrauded."

The FBI reports that these email scams have been known to heavily target the real estate sector in recent years. However, victims can come from anywhere.

"Although we call it business email compromise, victims can also be non-businesses," said assistant U.S. attorney Carl LeSueur. "There are couples who have lost down payments on their first home this way."

LeSeuer said "nobody is outside the scope of this threat." Scammers have been known to target title insurance companies, real estate brokers, law firms and small businesses in order to get the money they want.

"Our goal really is to educate the public to try and prevent these crimes," Collins said. "It's become a significant enough problem that we want to get the message out to the public."

Since scammers may slightly misspell or use a dot-net email address, Collins warned business owners to exercise caution with their correspondence.

"Looking at that, being careful when you are dealing with any sort of business transaction," Collins said. "Making sure that that's the legitimate email address — that's probably first and foremost."

Collins' other suggestion: Pick up the phone.

"Just before you're going to send the money," he said, "call and confirm those banking details to make sure it's really who you're intending to send it to."

Saheed Yusuf, 32, and Vanisha Wright Matthis, 46, both of Atlanta, are alleged to have scammed a Utah business out of $58,000 in 2016. Following a five-count indictment related to alleged email fraud schemes, the two are set to stand trial in Utah starting in October and September, respectively.

The FBI is not releasing the identity of the Utah business cited in the official indictment, filed on June 6.

Since October 2013, the FBI reports that over $12.5 billion has been lost to scams like these worldwide. In the U.S. during that period, over 41,000 people have been reported to be victims of these email scams, totaling a $2.9 billion loss.