Lebanese bankers, security take on cybercrime

By Junaid Salman in Beirut

Lebanon’s Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh (right) and security officials take part in the 2nd annual Anti-Cybercrime Forum held November 29th in Beirut. [Junaid Salman/Al-Mashareq]

Lebanon’s Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh (right) and security officials take part in the 2nd annual Anti-Cybercrime Forum held November 29th in Beirut. [Junaid Salman/Al-Mashareq]

Lebanese bankers and security officials gathered in Beirut last week to discuss the growing issue of cybercrime, which terror groups employ with increasing frequency to fund their criminal operations.

This type of crime has been on the rise as banks increasingly rely on online transactions to serve their customers, with incidents of fraud and embezzlement becoming more frequent, participants at the Anti-Cybercrime Forum said.

The 2nd annual forum, held November 29th in Beirut, was organised by Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal, in collaboration with the Special Investigations Commission of Lebanon’s Central Bank (BDL) and the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Bureau of the Directorate General of the Internal Security Forces (ISF).

"Cybercrime, [such as] the breach of bank accounts, financial and business information and personal data, is today an issue of concern for governments and regulatory bodies because it is suspected of being linked to terrorism," BDL governor Riad Salameh said.

The Lebanese parliament last year approved Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) legislation regulating the cross-border transport of money and exchange of tax information, he said.

Lebanon's bank secrecy law does not pose an obstacle to the lifting of secrecy on suspicious accounts and funds and the exchange of information regarding these accounts, Salameh noted.

"Increasing the level of compliance with transparency requirements and strengthening international AML/CFT co-operation does not conflict with the bank secrecy law, which continues to shield legitimate bank and financial accounts," he said.

Among fastest-growing crimes

"Financial and AML/CFT crimes are most serious crimes that threaten the global financial system and economic stability, as well as the security and stability of countries, including Lebanon," said ISF director general Ibrahim Basbous.

He stressed the importance of strengthening Lebanon’s global financial position, fulfilling its obligations and joining international conventions in this regard.

The diversity of methods used in cybercrime, digital fraud and online piracy is one of the negative consequences of technological advancement, said Abdul Hafiz Mansour, secretary general of BDL’s Special Investigations Commission.

This type of crime is serious due to the speed with which it can be committed and the cross-border transfer of misappropriated funds, which can move through several countries in a very short time, he said, while the anonymity of the perpetrators makes it almost impossible to recover the money.

Cybercrime has been on the rise, he said, noting that in 2011 the commission received a report on one $5,500 case, in 2015 it received 84 reports on cases totaling $12 million, and this year, it has received 137 reports on cases totaling $8 million.

Cybercrime prevention guidelines

The commission, in collaboration with BDL, the Association of Banks in Lebanon and the ISF, has released a guideline booklet on the prevention of cybercrime via email accounts held by financial sector workers and individual merchants, Mansour said.

The booklet details the various types of cybercrime and sets out precautionary measures to prevent them from occurring, he said, adding that new guidelines for individuals and non-financial establishments have now been completed.

"Cybercrime is one of the most serious crimes faced by countries, brought on by the fast spread of internet use in commerce, banking, access to government services and communication between individuals," said Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal group vice CEO Faisal Abu Zaki.

Lebanon has seen an increase in cybercrime "as a result of the increased reliance of banks on providing banking service online and via mobile phones", said Shawki Ahwash, head of the North Africa Commercial Bank AML/CFT unit.

The most prominent cybercrime in Lebanon involves fraudulent e-mails that contain payment and money transfer orders, he told Al-Mashareq.

"The problem that we face lies in the absence of legislation and laws to help us prosecute these crimes in in court when we are victimised by online piracy," Ahwash said.

Banks have stepped up efforts to teach their staffs how to deal with these crimes and verify customer identity in transactions conducted via e-mail, he added.

Internet security in Lebanon

Information security is based on privacy, integrity and the availability of adequate internet service, ISF information security consultant and retired Lebanese military officer Brig. Gen. Jacque Bakaev told Al-Mashareq.

Adequate internet service is a particular problem in Lebanon, he said.

"Access to information and posing a threat to it hinges on the internet infrastructure and how advanced it is," he explained, adding that Lebanon's inadequate internet infrastructure is vulnerable to being breached.

"A cybercrime that Lebanon is currently facing is ransomware, wherein a cyber criminal hacks your computer/network and locks it up, encrypting many files, and then demands the payment of a ransom to unlock it," he said.

This crime mirrors the kidnapping of an individual, Bakaev said.

He stressed the need to "exercise caution and alertness in dealing with suspect e-mails", noting that last year, most cybercrimes involved the theft of bank transfers via email, which is still ongoing, albeit at a slower pace.

"Cybercrimes are not confined to the banking and financial sector," said Lt. Col. Suzan Hajj Hobeiche, head of ISF's Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Bureau.

"Some of the complaints we receive pertain to piracy of money transfers and others to the hacking of personal data and demand of ransom payments in exchange for the decoding of encrypted files," she said.

This type of cybercrime is increasing in frequency, she noted, with 45 cases of piracy recorded annually by the bureau.

Lebanon also lacks a law on digital transactions and digital signature, which makes it harder for officials to fulfill their task of providing digital protection for financial transactions, she added.

The responsibility of fighting financial cybercrime rests with BDL’s Special Investigations Commission, concerned with fighting money laundering, and the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Bureau of the ISF Judicial Police unit.

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