By Serajul Quadir
A spelling mistake in an online bank transfer instruction helped prevent a nearly US$1 billion (NZ$1.49 billion) heist last month involving the Bangladesh central bank and the New York Fed, banking officials say.
Unknown hackers still managed to get away with about US$80 million, one of the largest known bank thefts in history.
The hackers breached Bangladesh Bank's systems last month and stole its credentials for payment transfers, two senior Bangladesh Bank officials said.
They then bombarded the Federal Reserve Bank of New York with nearly three dozen requests to move money from the Bangladesh bank's account there to entities in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, the officials said.
Four requests to transfer a total of about US$81 million to the Philippines went through, but a fifth, for US$20 million, to a Sri Lankan non-profit organisation got held up because the hackers misspelled the name of the NGO.
The full name of the non-profit is not known, but one of the officials said the hackers misspelled "foundation" in the NGO's name as "fandation", prompting a routing bank, Deutsche Bank, to seek clarification from the Bangladesh central bank, which stopped the transaction.
Deutsche Bank declined to comment.
At the same time the unusually high number of payment instructions and the transfer requests to private entities - as opposed to other banks - made the Fed suspicious, which also alerted the Bangladeshis, the officials said.
The details of how the hacking came to light and was stopped before it did more damage have not been previously reported.
Bangladesh Bank has billions of dollars in a current account with the Fed, which it uses for international settlements.
The transactions that got stopped totalled between US$850 million and US$870 million, one of the officials said.
Last year, Russian computer security company Kaspersky Lab said a multinational gang of cyber criminals had stolen as much as US$1 billion from as many as 100 financial institutions around the world in about two years.
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's son Qusay took US$1 billion from Iraq's central bank on the orders of his father on the day before coalition forces began bombing the country in 2003, American and Iraqi officials have said. In 2007, guards at the Dar Es Salaam bank in Baghdad made off with US$282 million.
The dizzying, global reach of the heist underscores the growing threat of cyber crime and how hackers can find weak links in even the most secure computer networks to steal money and wreak havoc.
More than a month after the attack, Bangladeshi officials are scrambling to trace the money, shore up security and identify weaknesses in their systems. They said there is little hope of ever catching the hackers, and it could take months before the money is recovered, if at all.
Security experts said the perpetrators had deep knowledge of the Bangladeshi institution's internal workings, likely gained by spying on bank workers.
The hacking of Bangladesh Bank happened sometime between February 4 and 5, over the Bangladeshi weekend, which falls on a Friday, the officials said. The bank's offices were shut for the holiday.
Initially, the central bank was not sure if their system had been breached, but then cyber security experts, brought from the outside to investigate, found hacker "footprints" that suggested their system had been compromised, the officials said.
These experts could also tell that the attack originated from outside Bangladesh, they said. The bank is still looking into how they got into the system and an internal investigation is also continuing, they said.