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Hacked: How $171 mn stolen from Union Bank was recovered (Relevant for GS Prelims and Mains Paper III)

Details emerge of how the money was retrieved from accounts in four different countries after government intervention

Even as the government marked Digital India Day, encouraging more Indians to move to banking online, investigators and cyber security agencies are battling more breaches of banking transfer security, admitting that “non-state” actors are increasingly targeting India.

Biggest hack of $171 million
Details are only just emerging of the biggest such hack of $171 million in July 2016, which necessitated a seven-country hunt that had to be spearheaded at the top levels of government to reverse the theft. The hack involved a transfer double the size of the Bangladesh Central Bank that lost $81 million in February 2016, but most details have been kept under wraps so far.

Officials involved in the operation, confirmed that while the attack was serious, all of the money had been retrieved within days.

How did the robbery take place?
A Union Bank of India official in the treasury department looking at SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) payments was checking statements for the day from their dollar account, when he noticed a startling discrepancy. An amount of $171 million had been debited from the bank without his authorisation. He quickly raised a red flag to the bank’s top management about the transaction.

By then the money had found its way to at least five locations, including accounts in Cambodia’s Canadia Bank and RHB IndoChina Bank, Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank, Bank Sinopac in Taiwan, and a bank in Australia. These funds were routed by Citibank New York and JP Morgan Chase New York, which hold UBI’s foreign exchange accounts.

MEA steps in
Apparently the hacking had occurred by sending malware to a bank official, who mistakenly opened an email that enabled the robbery. By the next day, when the extent of the loss was known, senior officials of the Ministry of External Affairs and other offices in South Block were pressed into action to retrieve the money.

One tricky negotiation was with the Taiwanese government with which India doesn’t have diplomatic ties, particularly as a court order was needed to secure the banking reversal instruction. However, with some pushing from U.S. officials, the entire $171 million was traced.

As the money trickled back into their accounts, Union Bank officials heaved a sigh of relief. Despite the speed and efficiency of operations to recover the money, not much is known about the follow-up investigations.

(Adapted from The Hindu)



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