Boss on vacation this month? Beware the employer imposter scam

Scammers pose as real-life executives and ask employees to send money, reassuring them it’s a legit business expense. It's not.

As the holiday vacation season draws near, many bosses and managers plan to take a few days off to travel or celebrate with family. This creates the perfect opportunity for fraudsters to impersonate them and trick their employees into falling for a costly scam.

The National Consumers League has recently observed a marked increase in complaints regarding the boss imposter scam. In this scam, fraudsters pose as real executives from an organization and ask “their” employees to send gift cards or to wire money on their behalf, reassuring them it’s a business request that will be reimbursed. These scams are particularly successful for con artists when they happen to reach an employee whose boss is out of the office on travel, when it’s more difficult for the employee to verify the legitimacy of the request.

A complaint we received from a man in New Hampshire is a common example. In this case, the victim was out $1,500. Here is what he told us:

“I received an email from what I thought was the owner of our company while he was in Ireland. The email [stated that] ‘I need you to make a store purchase for Apple iTunes gift cards of $100 face value. I need 15 of each card.’”

The email instructed the employee to send the codes on the back of the gift cards to the traveling company owner. Unfortunately, these emails can often seem quite convincing with fraudsters able to spoof the boss’s email address. Scammers are also able to identify conferences or speaking engagements that an employer may be traveling to, thanks to promotional materials, in order to perfectly time an email from “the boss.”

The convincing nature of these emails, combined with the hesitation of many employees to question their bosses, makes this scam lucrative for scammers and costly for consumers. The average loss reported to Fraud.org is more than $2,500. When victims use their personal credit card with the expectation of being reimbursed, they may be out thousands of dollars. Fortunately, as the holiday travel season approaches, there are several tips you can follow to protect yourself and your organization from falling victim to fraud:

  • When in doubt, call your boss. Don’t rely on email. Always confirm any unusual payment requests in person or by phone. This is especially important if you are not typically charged with making payments. Do not use the contact information provided in the email, as this could be spoofed as well. Instead, ask your boss in person or call them directly from the company directory.
  • Be cautious about any unusual information requests. Data can be just as valuable as money. If your boss is asking you for unusual personal information, consider calling him or her directly.
  • Remember that just because the email is from your boss’s email account doesn’t mean that it is actually from them. With so many password data breaches in recent years--and the ability to easily spoof email addresses--scammers can send emails that convincingly appear to be from your boss’s account.
  • Look for an unusual writing style. If the sender is writing in an unfamiliar style, or the email has lots of grammatical mistakes, it could be fake. If you are suspicious at all, call the sender to confirm any requests.

Boss impersonation scams come in many forms and can be difficult to spot. If you have fallen victim to a boss impersonation scam, let us know! You can file a complaint at Fraud.org via our secure online complaint form. We’ll share your complaint with our network of more than 90 law enforcement and consumer protection agency partners who can help put fraudsters behind bars.