Authorities thought they had a lead in the case of the $12 million that cyberthieves stole from a bank in Ecuador. But when they arrived to the Hong Kong site where $2 million of that bounty taken from Banco del Austro supposedly ended up, there was nothing to be found.
According to Reuters, the location was a registered office of Jiushun Group Co., Ltd. This was the named firm that received the largest transfer of the $12 million USD taken in January 2015 by unknown hackers from a world away with just a few strokes of the keyboard. But the address currently features only a small room set up as an all-night gaming and mahjong parlor. Those who currently use the gaming room have never heard of Jiushun, which is presumed to be a shell company, and have offered no information on who may have used the location to commit the crime.
Authorities believe the money was stolen through exploits in the SWIFT messaging system that financial institutions and central banks use to transfer money around the globe. In February, criminals stole $81 million USD in a similar hack perpetrated against the Bangladesh central bank. Vietnam’s Tien Phong Bank has also been hit through such means, although the attack “did not cause any losses,” according to the bank.
To exploit the system, criminals generally use phony SWIFT fund requests asking that the money be moved to illicit accounts set up to carry out the scheme. Reports suggest that, in the Bangladesh heist, thieves used the SWIFT credentials of Bangladesh central bank employees to send out more than 30 fund requests. Though they netted $81 million, authorities believe they were after more than $1 billion before being shut down.
With both cyberheists having ties to Hong Kong, security experts and those in the banking world are growing increasingly concerned about the location’s role in money laundering. The Reuters report shows that the hackers in the Ecuadorian case pushed $9 million of the stolen funds to 23 banks in Hong Kong. The remaining $3 million ended up in Dubai, among other places.