The fake checks were copied from digital check images that were stolen from a variety of databases and downloaded to be duplicated as paper checks with startling accuracy by BigBoss, a group using Russian as their shared language, with links to St. Petersburg, Russia, where they wanted money to be wired, whenever they could get someone to fall for the scheme.
So who were these fake business checks made out to? The payees were individuals that the shadowy Russian gang had recruited in the United States to act as financial agents for any number of numerous fake foreign firms that BigBoss made up. Some in the United States drafted into this scam clearly thought this was a legit job acting as a financial manager on behalf of a foreign firm, which sometimes passed itself off as Finnish.
Some of the BigBoss fronts were oddly spelled -- such as Succes Payment Ltd. or Global Busines Payments Inc.-- not to mention other names like InterWeb Exchange and Proteus Solutions. The payees whose names were put on these fake checks were the "money mules," who agreed to accept the task of depositing the checks they received in their own accounts, and wiring the amount through standard wire-transfer means to Russia.
From what SecureWorks can deduce, each week an average of about 20 of these "money mules" were sent paper checks through overnight delivery to deposit in their accounts and forward the money on to bank accounts in Russia through wire transfers. As a commission, they were allowed to keep 15% of the check's amount if they did that in one day. The cut dropped to 8% if the time slipped past the first day.
The BigBoss group had collected a pool of 2,884 names of people who had either responded to e-mail advertising a funds manger job, or been contacted after BigBoss after posting their resumes on job sites -- and BigBoss also seems to have hacked into employment databases in search of recruits.
It's not clear how many of the actual money mules knew what they were doing had pulled them into a vortex of crime and counterfeit checks. But Stewart says he did contact about a dozen of the money mules, even knocking on the doors of two of them to hear their stories firsthand.
"They knew immediately what I was talking about," says Stewart, who said the money mules frequently said they didn't understand at first what was happening when contacted by the BigBoss front organizations, but most soon figured it out.One of the money mules told SecureWorks that if a money mule didn't respond via e-mail with the wire information within a couple of days, the group does not give up -- they'll call the mule on the phone and ask about the money. In one instance, a representative of the group, a woman speaking English with a noticeable Russian accent, called and left several voice messages, urging the mule to provide an update on the status of the check.