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Highly-sophisticated cyberattacks conducted with the help of someone “on the inside” might make for great Hollywood movies, but the reality for most businesses is far more mundane. As the recent data breach of UnityPoint Health proves, the planning might have been sophisticated, but the mechanism was as boring as an email sent to an employee of the company.

The only skillset the hackers needed in this breach was the ability to do some online sleuthing, figure out which executive to mimic, then contact someone within the company while posing as that executive. Unfortunately, “boss phishing,” as this is known, is so easy a middle schooler could do it. It simply means making a fake email account—either masquerading as a company email or even a free throw away account—and contacting someone, asking for login credentials or other data.

In this case, someone at UnityPoint fell for it. A phishing email asking for login credentials was received and responded to, simply because it looked like an email from a boss. From there, the scammer was able to log into the system and access emails, some patient records and more.

UnityPoint investigated the breach and has sent out notification letters to the affected patients, offering a year of credit monitoring for those whose Social Security numbers or drivers licenses were accessed. They’ve also included instructions to all of the affected individuals on how to request a copy of their credit reports and how to place freezes on their credit.

More importantly, the health system is conducting widespread employee training on how to spot a phishing email, how to respond, and how to develop the foolproof, unyielding habit of never giving out sensitive information without confirming the request first.

For the rest of us, the last part is absolutely vital. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the workplace or the living room, all tech users have to learn how to avoid phishing attempts. It does not matter what the mechanism is, such as email or social media message, and it doesn’t matter what the request is. Some messages will claim there’s a problem with your account or payment method on file, while others may accuse you of a crime like failing to pay your taxes or not showing up for jury duty. Whatever the reason, you’ve got to ignore the message and handle it yourself.

Rather than hitting reply or clicking the enclosed link (there’s almost always a link to click!), get out of the message and head directly to your account for whatever company or organization claims supposedly sent the message. Look into your account status there, and if you’re still unsure, contact the company directly through their verified contact method. If you receive any requests for information like bank account numbers, credit card numbers, passwords, or other sensitive data, it’s most likely a scam.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.