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Information technology workers at the US Department of Homeland Security are busy scraping egg off their collective faces after unknown hackers broke into their telephone system and racked up $12,000 in calls to the Middle East and Asia.

The hackers made more than 400 calls by accessing the voicemail system of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a subagency of DHS, according to the Associated Press. The system had recently been upgraded, and it appears a "hole" was left open by the unidentified contractor who performed the job. A spokesman didn't identify the hole but said it has been closed.

One of the older tricks in the annals of so-called phone phreaking is breaking into private branch exchange systems by using passwords that are set by default during initial setup. Security-minded admins will see to it that those passwords are changed, but bureaucracy and inertia being what they are, that doesn't always happen.

Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, India and Yemen were among the countries that received calls from the hacked FEMA account. Most of the calls lasted for about three minutes, but some were as long as 10 minutes.

Ironically, DHS, which is responsible for securing US infrastructure against terrorists, issued a warning in 2003 that unsecured PBXes were wide open to intruders.

"This illegal activity enables unauthorized individuals anywhere in the world to communicate via compromised US phone systems in a way that is difficult to trace," the bulletin read.

The AP story is here. ®

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