US prosecutors are building cases that would accuse North Korea of directing the theft of US$81 million from the Bangladesh central bank’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last year, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing people familiar with the matter.
The charges, if filed, would target alleged Chinese middlemen who prosecutors believe helped North Korea orchestrate the theft, the newspaper said.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation believes that North Korea is responsible for the heist, an official briefed on the probe told Reuters.
Richard Ledgett, deputy director of the US National Security Agency, publicly suggested on Tuesday that North Korea may be linked to the incident, while private firms have long pointed the finger at the reclusive state.
The current cases being pursued may not include charges against North Korean officials, but would likely implicate the country, the Journal said.
FBI offices in Los Angeles and New York have been leading an international investigation into the February 2016 incident, in which hackers breached Bangladesh Bank’s systems and used the SWIFT messaging network to request nearly US$1 billion from its account at the New York Fed.
The branch of the US central bank rejected most of the requests but filled some of them, resulting in US$81 million disappearing into casinos and other entities in the Philippines.
A top police investigator in Dhaka told Reuters in December that some Bangladesh Bank officials deliberately exposed its computer systems, enabling the hackers to get in.
The efforts to build federal cases reflect a decision at the Justice Department that there is merit to the view of some private security researchers that the Fed heist was linked to the hacking in 2014 of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which the FBI blamed on North Korea, the WSJ said.
The incident exposed bungling and miscommunication between central banks, and left the Fed, Bangladesh, SWIFT, and the Philippine lender that initially received the funds trading blame for months.
SWIFT – the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, which serves as the backbone of global finance – has since revealed that its messaging system has been targeted in a “meaningful” number of other attacks last year using a similar approach as in the Bangladesh incident.
Last week, SWIFT said it planned to cut off the remaining North Korean banks still connected to its system as concerns about the country’s nuclear program and missile tests grow.
The Journal reported that federal investigators are focusing on Chinese individuals or businesses who allegedly helped North Korea orchestrate the heist, and that the US Treasury is considering sanctions against these alleged middlemen.
Imposing sanctions is an approach the US government is increasingly using to go after suspected lawbreakers who are unlikely to land in US custody, the newspaper said.
The New York Fed and SWIFT declined to comment.
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