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Fallen Victims: Recruited by Headhunter to Commit Espionage

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

Lee arrived from Malaysia to pursue his master’s degree in Information Systems Management from the University of Texas in Houston. Upon graduation, he was fortunate to secure a position in Houston as an Information Technology Specialist for a wealth management company.

In the eyes of his family back home in Malaysia, Lee was considered as a very dutiful and successful son. He was one of five children born within a lower income family. Lee was the only member of his family who had been able to study abroad and obtain a degree from a prestigious university in the United States. Lee felt pressure to remain in America where he would be able to make more money and send remittances back for his family.

While initially intrigued by American culture, he really missed his homeland, family and friends. As he was ethnic Chinese, he missed the very strong cultural traditions practiced by his family. While he found Americans very pleasant on the surface, he perceived them as more superficial and did not have any close friends.

Likewise, Lee was not very happy in his current job. The problem was namely his relationship with his boss, the Director of Information Systems Operations. Instead of acknowledging Lee’s work, the Director would typically take direct credit for it. I did not help that the Director would also belittle Lee and referred to him as the Chinaman.

It was in this context that Lee received a call from Mark who described himself as an executive recruiter. Based upon Lee’s LinkedIn profile, Mark claimed that he was impressed with Lee’s background and believed that he may be a good fit for filling a position sought by one of his clients. The position was of greater responsibility and much higher in compensation. If interested, Mark wanted to get together for lunch to provide more information about the position and to interview Lee.

Lee immediately accepted the opportunity to get together. In Lee’s eyes, he had nothing to lose. What he didn’t know was that he was being targeted by an organized criminal group pursuing sensitive data on his employer’s high net worth clients.

During their luncheon meeting, Lee freely discussed his academic, professional and personal background. Through interview questions and a variety of effective elicitation techniques, Mark was able to pick up on several motivations and vulnerabilities. While career progression and money were motivations, ultimately, Lee wanted to make his family proud and be able to provide additional financial support to them. Vulnerabilities included loneliness, low self esteem and wanting to get back at his supervisor, sometimes referred to as revenge.

Mark held several more meetings with Lee. On two separate occasions he raised Lee’s expectations for securing the job with a client only to bring Lee down with the client’s rejection. Lee was feeling very demoralized. The time was right to introduce a representative of a third client. The representative was ethnic Chinese who was able to engage Lee in his native language and leverage cultural ties. The representative claimed that his boss preferred that Lee stay in place with his current employer. That was where he would be of most value to them. He explained that the client wanted to acquire Lee’s employer. They needed inside information to better position themselves in the negotiations. The most important data included all client records.

The client would pay Lee $20,000 for this information. In the event the client successfully acquired the target company, they would restructure the IT department, fire the Director of Information Systems Operations and place Lee in this position.

Carefully assessing Lee’s motivations and vulnerabilities, as well as building considerable trust in their relationship, both Mark and his ethnic Chinese colleague were able to effectively recruit Lee to commit industrial espionage. Lee passed the information and was paid $20,000.00.

While you might say that Lee freely made his decision to commit industrial espionage, it is really not that easy. He was definitely manipulated along the way playing to his discovered motivations and vulnerabilities.

He could have easily avoided getting into this situation if he would have tried to verify the legitimacy of this so called “recruiter.” He should have looked for information which would have substantiated Mark’s identity from independent sources. While several potential job opportunities falling through might not be a red flag in itself, the perfect opportunity surfacing requiring that he prove his access by providing proprietary information should have triggered alarms as something illegal. This technique is commonly utilized in the world of espionage as well as by criminal organizations and industrial competitors.

Remember: if you are approached by someone claiming to be a headhunter, do not trust everything they are telling you until you have had an opportunity to independently verify.

Verify, then Trust.


About the Counterintelligence Institute

Founded by former CIA senior intelligence officer Peter Warmka, the Counterintelligence Institute’s mission is to assist your corporations, government offices, academic institutions and non-profit organizations in protecting your sensitive information and personal data records against security breach attempts. Our online and onsite training services focus on transforming the human factor from being the weakest link in security to becoming the most effective defensive tool against security threats against your company and personal life.


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