Skip to main content

Request SaaS Deployment

Contact Sales


What is CEO Fraud: Definition and How to Prevent It


Picture yourself getting an email from your chief executive officer (CEO), requesting you to fill out a form or send a wire transfer to a bank account. It seems routine, so you comply. But in fact, this is how CEO fraudsters can exploit your trust for executing CEO fraud attacks. 

What is CEO fraud? Chief executive officer fraud or CEO fraud is a cyberattack wherein cyber criminals mimic an organization’s CEO or other top-tier executive, deceiving staff members into transferring funds or disclosing sensitive information. It is also known as business email compromise or CEO impersonation fraud.

In a CEO fraud attack, criminals send fraudulent requests for wire transfers, W-2 forms, or other sensitive data from an email that closely resembles the company CEO’s email address. Understanding CEO fraud and its common tactics can help you take preventive measures to defend your organization from this type of attack and keep your finances and sensitive data safe.

Besides explaining the CEO fraud meaning, this post informs you about the main targets and real-life examples of such attacks, as well as CEO fraud detection methods. Read on to learn everything behind the CEO fraud definition.

The main targets in CEO fraud schemes

Attackers would often conduct comprehensive research on the company and its employees they’re going to target to make emails or other types of communication more convincing. CEO fraud attackers most commonly choose the following personnel as their immediate targets:

  1. Financial staff: Finance department employees, including chief financial officers (CFO), controllers, and accountants can receive fake requests to initiate wire transfers or approve payments.
  2. Human resources (HR) personnel: HR staff can be requested to provide sensitive employee information, such as Social Security numbers and banking details.
  3. Executive assistants: Assistants who manage the schedules and communications of senior executives can be asked to process financial transactions or provide the company’s sensitive information.
  4. IT administrators: IT administrators can be targeted with the aim of compromising their corporate accounts and further using them to launch phishing campaigns targeting other employees.
  5. High-ranking executives: Identities of CEOs, CFOs, and other top executives are often used to manipulate employees and business partners into making payments or disclosing sensitive information.

By understanding the main targets in CEO fraud schemes, organizations can implement targeted security measures and provide tailored training to employees who are most at risk.

Top 4 most common CEO fraud attack methods

The knowledge of CEO fraud attack methods is critical for your organization as it helps you set up strong security measures and educate employees on how to notice and report the signs of a CEO fraud attack.

Here are the top 4 CEO fraud attack methods to be aware of:

1. Impersonation attack: Attackers impersonate company executives through email, phone calls, video conferences, or other communication channels to request urgent financial transactions, such as wire transfers or payments to vendors.

2. Phishing: Malicious actors send emails that appear to come from high-level executives, aiming to deceive recipients into disclosing sensitive information like login credentials or financial data. These emails often contain malicious links or attachments that, when clicked or opened, compromise the recipient’s system or network.

3. Invoice fraud: Attackers send fraudulent invoices to employees, suppliers, or customers requesting payment for goods or services that were never provided. Although these invoices may appear legitimate, they can lead to financial losses if payments are made.

4. Social engineering: Cybercriminals use social engineering tactics to manipulate employees into complying with fraudulent requests. This may involve exploiting trust, authority, or urgency to persuade individuals to take unauthorized actions.

Real-life examples of CEO fraud attacks

Even with growing awareness and CEO fraud prevention strategies, CEO fraud still causes organizations financial damage and reputation loss. Let’s take a closer look at some real-life cases that show how devastating and crafty CEO fraud can be.

  • In May 2024, scammers impersonated the CEO of WPP, a British multinational company that is the world’s largest advertising firm. Using a fake WhatsApp account, they arranged a Microsoft Teams meeting with another senior executive at WPP. They deployed a voice clone of the WPP’s CEO, Mark Read, as well as real footage of him from YouTube to make the call look realistic. Their goal was to deceive the targeted individual into providing money and personal information under the guise of setting up a new business. Luckily, WPP’s staff remained vigilant enough and didn’t let the attackers succeed.
  • In February 2024, it became known about a multinational company that lost $25 million after one of the employees was fooled by a video conference fabricated with deepfake technology. At first, the employee received a request to process a secret transaction from the company’s UK-based chief financial officer and suspected it was a phishing email. However, his doubts vanished after a video call that followed the email as it was attended by the colleagues he recognized. It was only after the transaction was completed that the employee realized everyone on the call was fake.
  • In November 2021, the city of Cottage Grove mistakenly sent $1.2 million to scammers posing as a contracted company for a sewage project. The city had a $3.5 million contract with Geislinger & Sons, based in Watkins, Minnesota. Initial correspondence was through a legitimate email ending in “” The first payment was made to a genuine bank account. However, shortly after the first payment, an email from “” requested an update to payment information, leading to the fraudulent transfer.

The above cases demonstrate the severity of CEO fraud attacks and emphasize the need to bolster your cybersecurity measures and provide comprehensive training for your organization’s employees. By learning insights from past cases and staying vigilant against emerging threats, you can fortify your defenses, consequently mitigating the risks of financial loss, reputational damage, and potential regulatory scrutiny stemming from CEO fraud incidents.

How to detect a CEO fraud attack

Detecting CEO fraud attacks requires a keen eye for detail and an understanding of the tactics commonly employed by cybercriminals. Here are several indicators that may signal a CEO fraud attack:

  • Urgency: Wary of emails that request immediate wire transfers or payments, especially if they come directly from senior executives like the CEO or CFO. Cybercriminals often exploit the guise of urgency to pressure employees into making hasty financial transactions.
  • Unusual email addresses or domains: Check the email address and domain carefully. Scammers may use email addresses that closely resemble those of company executives but contain subtle variations or misspellings.
  • Uncommon tone or language: The tone and language used in the email can help to identify a CEO fraud attack. CEO fraud emails often employ persuasive or authoritarian language to manipulate recipients into complying with the fraudulent request. 
  • Lack of personalization: Generic or impersonal emails that do not address recipients by name or reference specific details relevant to their role or responsibilities can indicate a CEO fraud attack. Genuine communications from company executives are likely to be personalized and tailored to the recipient.
  • Request to keep the message confidential: Emails that explicitly instruct recipients to keep the content of the message confidential or to refrain from discussing it with others may signify a CEO fraud attack. Cybercriminals use secrecy as a tactic to prevent victims from seeking verification or assistance from colleagues or supervisors.
  • Incorrect spelling: Legitimate communications from executives are typically well-written and free from obvious mistakes. Pay attention to errors in spelling or grammar as they may indicate that the email is fraudulent.
  • Communication outside of office hours: Be cautious of emails received outside of business hours, especially if they request urgent action or financial transactions. CEO fraud attackers may target employees when they are less likely to verify the authenticity of the request with colleagues or supervisors.

Implementing secure mechanisms, such as two-factor authentication, a contact list for verifying payment requests, and employee training on CEO fraud, can help companies reduce their exposure to these attacks.

How to prevent CEO fraud: 6 best practices

With proper preventive measures and thorough security procedures, organizations can reduce the chances of being targeted by CEO fraud criminals. Let’s look at a few ways to avoid CEO fraud and protect your company from both financial and reputational damage.

1. Employee training and awareness programs

Invest in robust cybersecurity awareness programs that will teach employees about the various ways and red flags that are associated with CEO fraud attacks. Underline the fact that an employee must always check the credibility of email requests, especially in cases involving financial operations and personal information. It’s critical to constantly inform employees of evolving cyber threats and provide them with the resources and knowledge to identify and report suspicious activity in a timely manner.

2. Implement multi-factor authentication

Secure your organization’s systems and applications by deploying multi-factor authentication (MFA) across the organization. MFA is a security measure that goes beyond the conventional password-based mechanism by requiring users to verify their identity through multiple identity verification methods, such as biometrics, one-time passwords, or hardware tokens. Through the use of MFA, you can prevent unauthorized access and, consequently, minimize the risk of compromised accounts used in CEO fraud attacks.

3. Establish clear communication protocols

Set specific communication channels and protocols for conducting financial transactions or sharing private information within your organization. For instance, you can introduce hierarchical approval processes for wire transfers and payments and require the use of encryption when sharing confidential information. Instruct employees to verify requests for odd or large-sum transactions by contacting executives directly via trusted communication channels.

4. Monitor and analyze email traffic

Implement the most up-to-date email security tools, which are equipped with threat detection and analysis functionality to scan incoming and outgoing email traffic for indications of phishing or impersonation attacks. Take advantage of SPF, DKIM, and DMARC email protocols to authenticate email senders and detect fraudulent email addresses. Utilize email filtering techniques to detect and isolate doubtful emails before they get to the employees’ mailboxes, thus reducing the probability of a successful CEO fraud attack.

5. Conduct regular security assessments and penetration testing

Cybercriminals can use weaknesses in your systems, process, or employee negligence and unawareness to carry out a CEO fraud attack. Introduce regular cybersecurity risk assessments and CEO fraud simulations to test your employees’ resistance to these attacks and provide the necessary training to help them overcome their weak points.

6. Keep up with emerging threats

Stay current with the most recent cybersecurity trends, incidents in the industry, and security solutions against CEO fraud and other security threats. Continuously revise and update your security policies and processes so that they are current and meet the changing needs of cyber threats and IT regulations you comply with.

Implementing these practices will help you build a comprehensive cybersecurity plan that comprises employee education, technical security measures, and proactive threat detection. As a result, it can significantly lower your organization’s chances of falling victim to CEO fraud attacks.