Hacked!

As email, documents, and almost every aspect of our professional and personal lives moves onto the “cloud”—remote servers we rely on to store, guard, and make available all of our data whenever and from wherever we want them, all the time and into eternity—a brush with disaster reminds the author and his wife just how vulnerable those data can be. A trip to the inner fortress of Gmail, where Google developers recovered six years’ worth of hacked and deleted e‑mail, provides specific advice on protecting and backing up data now—and gives a picture both consoling and unsettling of the vulnerabilities we can all expect to face in the future.
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On April 13 of this year, a Wednesday, my wife got up later than usual and didn’t check her e‑mail until around 8:30 a.m. The previous night, she had put her computer to “sleep,” rather than shutting it down. When she opened it that morning to the Gmail account that had been her main communications center for more than six years, it seemed to be responding very slowly and jerkily. She hadn’t fully restarted the computer in several days, and thought that was the problem. So she closed all programs, rebooted the machine, and went off to make coffee and have some breakfast.

When she came back to her desk, half an hour later, she couldn’t log into Gmail at all. By that time, I was up and looking at e‑mail, and we both quickly saw what the real problem was. In my inbox I found a message purporting to be from her, followed by a quickly proliferating stream of concerned responses from friends and acquaintances, all about the fact that she had been “mugged in Madrid.” The account had seemed sluggish earlier that morning because my wife had tried to use it at just the moment a hacker was taking it over and changing its settings—including the password, so that she couldn’t log in again. The bogus message that had just gone out to me and everyone else in her Gmail contact list was this:

From: Deb Fallows <debfallows@gmail.com>

Date: Wed, Apr 13, 2011 at 8:45 AM

Subject: Problem

To:

now this might come as a suprise to you,but I made a quick trip to Madrid in Spain and was mugged.My bag,valuables,credit cards and passport all gone.The embassy has cooperated by issuing a temporary passport.I need funds to settle outstanding hotel bills,ticket and other expenses.

To be honest,i don’t have money with me at the moment. I’ve made contact with my bank but the best they could do was to send me a new card in the mail which will take 2-4 working days to arrive here from DC. I need you to lend me some Money to sort my self out of this predicament, i will pay back once i get this over with because i need to make a last minute flight.

Western Union or MoneyGram is the fastest option to wire funds to me. Let me know if you need my details(Full names/location) to effect a transfer. You can reach me via hotel’s desk phone and the number is, +34 981 600916867.



Thanks.

Deb

I’m using her real e‑mail address because at this stage there’s no point in “protecting” it. Someone had obviously taken over her account and was using it as a crude spamming tool—or at least what we considered crude. Who hadn’t seen countless messages like this before? Which of her friends would really think that Deb would capitalize “Money,” type a paragraph’s worth of sentences with no spaces separating them, or say that she had gone to “Madrid in Spain”? And, indeed, the great majority of notes were warnings that her account had been hacked and was being used to send out fraud-spam; some included gratuitous tips about the need to be more careful in online life.

But a touching handful of the notes came from people who took the plea at face value. They wrote to me; they replied to Deb’s account; a few even phoned from South America, Asia, the Midwest, and Australia to find out how they could help. That was the first indication that this would be more than a minor nuisance. What if some of them actually sent cash?

The more serious sign of the potential scale of our problems came later in the day. Google offers a variety of automated ways for users to regain control of Gmail and other accounts they think have been hacked. The automated routines, plus an online forum moderated by Google employees, are the only help Google offers. With hundreds of millions of active Gmail accounts to manage—that’s as specific as Google will be about its user base—operating in 54 languages worldwide, the relative handful of human beings on Gmail’s support staff could not even pretend to offer live one-on-one service. The same is true of Yahoo, Microsoft’s Hotmail, Facebook, Skype, eBay, and the other big operators of “cloud”-based systems.

As a reminder: in cloud-based systems, users turn the management and protection of crucial data and services over to third parties, and then call up information as necessary via the Internet. For individuals, the appeal is that e-mail held “in the cloud” by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, et cetera, is available wherever there is an Internet connection, rather than being lodged on any one machine. If a corporation is large enough, it may operate its own internal cloud, or turn to large-scale suppliers like Amazon—which has a cloud-server business apart from its familiar retail functions—to store and protect data.

The first and easiest automated step was to fill out a password-reset form. Doing so prompted Google to send reset instructions to the mobile-phone number or alternate e‑mail address listed as “recovery options” for Deb’s account. That alternate e‑mail account, with AOL, was no longer active, and in any case whoever had taken over her Gmail settings seemed to have removed or changed the information. The next line of defense was to submit a form reporting that an account had been taken over or compromised. We had sent in that form within 30 minutes of discovering the problem, giving my Gmail address as the new contact point. Meanwhile my wife logged into a secondary Gmail account she had previously created, and began writing to friends and family as quickly as she could to explain what was going on.

While we waited for results from Google, we began to hear, by phone and via our other e‑mail accounts, from people who had written back to Deb “in Madrid” to find out more about her predicament. They had all quickly gotten responses, from an account meant to look similar to hers but with a one-letter difference: debbfallows@gmail.com. We learned later that, as a predictable part of a hacking attack on Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or any other e‑mail service, an attacker will change the settings so that all incoming mail is forwarded to a new, similar-seeming address—and then deleted from the real account, to make it harder for the real user to know, later on, who had responded to the scam. And whoever was on the other end of the exchange had gathered at least enough personal info to sustain a round or two of exchanges with concerned friends. For instance, Deb’s mother in Florida, 89 years old, had written back immediately to say that the message was a fraud, signing the note “Mom.” Her message went instead to debbfallows, who sent this reply:

From: “Deb Fallows” <debbfallows@gmail.com>

Date: Wed, 13 Apr 2011 14:23:23 +0000

Subject: Re: terrible scam

Hey mom,

I am too old to raise a false alarm. I was mugged last night under gun point.



I need €1,500. Below are my details you for the transfer,kindly get this done from any Western union office close to you:



Receiver Name: Deborah Fallows

Location: Madrid,Spain



Don’t forget to email the Money control number(MTCN) to enable me pick up the funds. I promise to pay back once I return to DC. Expecting to hear from you.



Other than this,how are you doing?



Xoxo,

Deb

We thought that “other than this” was a nice touch. Other friends who replied got other variations, all with the same basic social-engineering info—the knowledge that our regular home was “in DC,” and that I was her spouse. A friend in New York was ready to send money, if he could only talk with Deb on the phone to be sure. His exchange with the hacker finally petered out this way:

I had to check out of the hotel due to accumulated bills. I am in a cyber cafe at the moment,sorry I cannot afford a call card.



Xoxo

Deb

So far, this was embarrassing, and possibly costly to the most openhearted or trusting among our acquaintances, but not worse than that. We’d returned only a few days earlier from a two-month stay in China. Perhaps this was one more predictable aftereffect, like my chronic cough? Things seemed to be improving when, around 2 p.m., a message from Google’s help system arrived in my account, with instructions on how Deb could at last reset her password and regain control of her information.

She did so, and logged into her Gmail account with enormous relief, which lasted perhaps five seconds. When she looked at her Inbox, and her Archives, and even the Trash and Spam folders in her account, she found—absolutely nothing. Of her allocated 7 gigabytes of storage, 0.0 gigabytes were in use, versus the 4+ gigabytes shown the day before. Six years’ worth of correspondence and everything that went with it were gone. All the notes, interviews, recollections, and attached photos from our years of traveling through China. All the correspondence with and about her father in the last years of his life. The planning for our sons’ weddings; the exchanges she’d had with subjects, editors, and readers of her recent book; the accounting information for her projects; the travel arrangements and appointments she had for tomorrow and next week and next month; much of the incidental-expense data for the income-tax return I was about to file—all of this had been erased. It had not just been put in the “Trash” folder but permanently deleted.

In some other circumstances, we might have had a calmly reasoned discussion about whether it made sense to have so much emotionally and practically precious information in a single, now evidently vulnerable, place. Even in these real circumstances, we realized that with enough persistent effort she could have eventually rewoven parts of the missing fabric. Her mother still had some of the messages Deb had sent about her father, I had some of what she’d written and done in China; bit by bit she might get some things back. For the moment, all we could do was clean up some of the traces of the attack that remained in her account—the command to forward all incoming messages to DebbFallows, the bogus e‑mail address and phone numbers for the password-recovery routines—and fill out another form on the Google help site, this one to request an automated recovery of deleted e‑mail.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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