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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Email scammers are just like any other small business: They need leads, and commercial lead-generation services — the same kind many salespeople use — are providing them.

The big picture: Email scams targeting businesses, usually referred to as business email compromise scams, can seem unsophisticated. They typically take the form of fake invoices or emails from executives asking for money transfers. But like any other kind of enterprise, they care a lot about finding new clients — or, in their case, victims.

Background: In the past, we've covered how criminal groups operate like corporations, from their help wanted ads to their customer support hotlines. This is just the latest example.

  • Email fraudsters became known as "Nigerian scammers" in the early days of the web, when people around the world started to receive messages from bogus Nigerian princes seeking cash assistance. But the name is apt — the major groups actually do operate out of West Africa, and particularly Nigeria.

Details: "Of the West African groups we've profiled, nearly all of them use lead-generation sites," said Crane Hassold, senior director of threat research at Agari, a firm that tracks how email scam groups operate.

  • The criminal groups Agari has observed all used different lead-generation firms.
  • The sites offer users customizable searches for targets. For example, you could look up chief financial officers for tech companies of a certain size and revenue in California.
  • The groups Agari has tracked would sign up for free trials under a series of email accounts using the "Gmail dot" trick, though one group, nicknamed London Blue, outright purchased a $1,500 yearly subscription to a service last year. London Blue went on to download 50,000 leads in 6 months.

The groups could craft and refine a single spear-phishing email that would work against a wide variety of similar executives just by substituting different company names and small details.

  • It's more efficient than the older method of target acquisition — scraping lists of names from websites — but it still takes time to work. It took 18 days after a scammer downloaded the name of an Agari executive, said Hassold, before a phishing email arrived.
  • Targeting Agari isn't a particularly bright move, all things considered, but once the scammers get a name from a lead-generation service, they don't do further research. If they cast a wide enough net to find someone who takes the bait, they don't need to.

What they're saying: Axios reached out to six lead-generation firms that criminal groups used in the past, as identified by a security source that asked to remain anonymous to protect its information-gathering operation. None of the firms responded.

  • A quick look around the industry shows these services don't use upfront screening policies that would thwart scammers. And even a firm that did have screening policies in place appeared unaware of the scammer problem and was screening mostly to prevent spam.

The bottom line: Business email compromises reported to the FBI cost firms more than $1.2 billion in the United States alone in 2018, double the proceeds of 2017.

Go deeper: A look inside a Nigerian email scam group active since 2008

Go deeper

Mark Meadows will stop cooperating with Jan. 6 panel, attorney says

Photo: Chris Kleponis/Polaris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows will no longer cooperate with the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, his attorney told Fox News Tuesday.

Why it matters: Meadows, who failed to appear before the panel last month, is believed to have insight into former President Trump's role in efforts to stop the certification of President Biden's election win.

Updated 3 hours ago - Economy & Business

The billionaire balloon

Data: World Inequality Report 2022; Chart: Axios Visuals

The super-rich are getting stupid rich: New data out today shows the share of global wealth held by the richest slice of humanity swelled by almost a full percentage point during the pandemic.

Driving the news: The top 0.01% of individuals now hold about 11% of the world's wealth, compared to just over 10% in 2020, according to the "World Inequality Report 2022," written by Lucas Chancel, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.

Tina Reed, author of Vitals
3 hours ago - Health

Omicron gives a shot to boosters

Expand chart
Data: CDC; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Vaccination rates have ticked higher since the discovery of the Omicron variant, CDC data shows.

By the numbers: The seven-day average for vaccinations in the U.S. reached about 1.8 million on Monday, up from an average of about 1.3 million a month ago.