Hackers Rob $400,000 From Washington Town

Small Washington State town lost funds from its own Bank of America account, as well as employees' and residents' bank account information.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

October 16, 2012

3 Min Read

Hackers have successfully compromised multiple computer systems administered by the town of Burlington, Wash., which has a population of about 8,400.

The thieves' spoils include many town employees' and residents' bank account details, raising the prospect that the information may be used for identify theft purposes. In addition, the thieves were able to successfully make fraudulent wire transfers from a Bank of America account used by the town, although the actual amount of money they stole isn't yet clear.

"Although a total is not yet known, over $400,000 in funds have reportedly been electronically transferred to multiple personal and business accounts across the United States over a two-day period," said Dave Stafford, assistant chief of the Burlington Police Department, in a statement.

"The [town's] finance department notified local authorities immediately after learning of the illegal transfers and the account was frozen," Stafford said. "Computer hacking is suspected and computer forensic examinations are being conducted."

[ Cybercrime now costs a U.S. business $8.9 million per year. See Cybercrime Attacks, Costs Escalating. ]

The ramifications of the related breaches--which occurred on Oct. 9 and 10, and which were spotted by city employees Oct. 11--are widespread, and not yet fully known. But the city has already warned any employees that participate in its payroll deposit program that their personal details were compromised. "Employees are encouraged to contact their banks to flag or close the accounts associated with the electronic payroll deposit and to notify appropriate credit reporting agencies that they may be victims of identity theft," said Stafford.

The town also issued a notice on its website saying that its "Utility Billing Automatic Withdrawal Information (for sewer and storm drain charges) has been compromised," and told anyone enrolled in the automatic payment program that "you should assume that your name, bank, bank account number, and routing number have been compromised."

"We apologize for the inconvenience," read the note.

The U.S. Secret Service Puget Sound Electronic Crimes Task Force is investigating the data breaches, and a neighboring town's police force will help. "As Burlington Police investigators are also potential victims in the case, Mount Vernon Police will be assisting federal investigators," said Stafford.

Unlike consumers, towns such as Burlington aren't covered by laws that hold banks liable for any such fraud, although some lawmakers have introduced legislation that would extend such protections to government entities.

As that suggests, this is far from the first fraudulent wire-transfer attack that's been perpetrated on a small town. Furthermore, the frequency and severity of such attacks has been on the increase. Last month, the FBI, Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center, and the Internet Crime Complaint Center released a joint warning that criminals have been targeting bank account information using "spam and phishing e-mails, keystroke loggers, and remote access trojans (RATs)," as well as variants of the Zeus financial malware. The alert noted that stolen credentials have been used by attackers numerous times to fraudulently transfer between $400,000 and $900,000--at one time--into overseas accounts.

U.S. government officials, in anonymous interviews, have blamed Iran for launching those banking attacks, which they said began over a year ago. But the attack against Burlington, Wash., would seem to differ, since the money was reportedly transferred not overseas, but into U.S. bank accounts.

Regardless, don't expect these types of attacks to cease anytime soon. Security firm RSA recently warned that accounts across 30 different banks were set to be targeted as part of "Operation Blitzkrieg," in which as many as 100 botnet operators planned to join forces to steal money from organizations in the financial services, retail, healthcare, and government sectors. In particular, RSA said that the attackers planned to infect large numbers of PCs with a Trojan application that would allow them to steal banking credentials, which they planned to use to make fraudulent wire transfers.

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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