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Swift hack probe expands to up to 12 banks beyond Bangladesh

[WASHINGTON] Investigators are examining possible computer breaches at as many as 12 banks linked to Swift's global payments network that have irregularities similar to those in the theft of US$81 million from the Bangladesh central bank, according to a person familiar with the probe.

FireEye, the security firm hired by the Bangladesh bank, has been contacted by the other banks, most of which are in Southeast Asia, because of signs that hackers may have breached their networks, the person said. They include banks in the Philippines and New Zealand but not in Western Europe or the United States. There is no indication of whether money was taken.

The expansion of the investigation four months after the discovery of the Bangladesh attack, the biggest known cyber-heist in history, suggests a broad and serious campaign to breach the international financial system.

FireEye declined to comment on the report. A Swift spokesman, Natasha de Teran, said, "As we have stated before, we are actively looking into other possible instances of such fraud, but we will not comment on individual entities."

The Brussels-based interbank cooperative, whose full name is the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, has warned that there may have been more breaches than the three already publicly identified, including those in Vietnam and Ecuador.

Swift has come under increasing pressure from its bank customers to ratchet up its security measures in order to prevent future cyber robberies. Swift has relied on the trust within its network - if you receive a Swift message, you can be sure it is legitimate and move the money as instructed immediately - to cement its effective dominance of the international payments system over the past four decades. If that trust erodes, it calls into doubt the foundation upon which the cooperative is built.

Hackers may have targeted even more banks, Swift's CEO, Gottfried Leibbrandt, said this week in a speech outlining plans to improve network and client defenses. He didn't provide any details about which banks may have been targeted or whether their defenses had been breached.

"This is a big deal, and it gets to the heart of banking," he said in the speech, adding: "Banks that are compromised like this can be put out of business." In the Bangladesh case, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York was tricked by fake Swift messages into wiring money it held for the impoverished country to hacker-controlled accounts in the Philippines. The Fed's systems halted an additional US$850 million the attackers tried to have transferred.

Hackers also stole US$12 million from an Ecuadorean bank in January 2015, according to documents filed a lawsuit by Banco del Austro against Wells Fargo, its US correspondent bank. They also tried to move about US$1.2 million in an attack late last year on a Vietnamese lender that was foiled, the lender told its regulators.

While Swift has for decades made sure its own network was secured, less attention was paid to the security surrounding how member banks - each with their own codes and levels of technology sophistication - were connecting.

Banks in the UK and the US are now pushing for discussions with Swift about how it should help member banks better secure their systems, according to people familiar with the separate talks.

BITS, the section of the Financial Services Roundtable aimed at combating cyber fraud and other technological issues, could be selected to broker those discussions in the US, one person said. In the UK, banks are privately lobbying the Bank of England and possibly the British Bankers' Association to press Swift into adopting new security measures, another person said.

Swift, which connects 11,000 financial institutions that send about 25 million messages a day, will try to increase information sharing among clients, raise security requirements for the software clients use and help clients conduct security audits, Mr Leibbrandt said in his speech. Swift will also introduce certification requirements for vendors that help some banks connect to the network, and it may help banks use pattern recognition to identify suspicious behavior, he said.