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Luxury hotel sues email-thieving blackmailer

Subpoenas Yahoo! for his name

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Underscoring a weak link in the security chains of even the world's biggest companies, a luxury hotel chain is subpoenaing Yahoo in an attempt to learn who breached its computer network and accessed sensitive emails sent to company employees.

In a federal lawsuit filed last week, Thompson Hotels said the unknown hacker accessed one or more employee email accounts and caused them to forward incoming messages to a free account offered by Yahoo. To cover his tracks, the miscreant used the addresses marissacortes@rocketmail.com in an apparent attempt to masquerade as an actual Thompson Hotels employee named Marissa Cortes.

A day after breaching Thompson's system, someone sent an email from the same Rocketmail address to a Thompson principal and pretended to be a Thompson employee.

"That email taunted plaintiff about defendant's receipt of the unauthorized information, attempted to embarrass key employees of Thompson, and contained an implied threat to further disseminate the stolen emails to the public to the detriment of Thompson," the complaint, which was filed in US District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleged. "Indeed, in an attempt to embarrass Thompson, defendant sent the material it stole from Thompson to at least one third party."

The episode shines a bright light on shoddy security practices that are common in many large companies. Email systems all to often make it painfully easy to forward sensitive emails to outside email accounts, as was evidently the case here. What's more, company policies frequently permit workers to post employment details on sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. As this Google search demonstrates, this information is easily accessible to anyone.

Of course, it's possible that the perpetrator is a Thompson Hotels insider who already knew the names of employees working there. But the publishing of detailed employer information, as Cortes, the impersonated Thomson Hotels employee, continues to do (see second entry in the above Google search), is potential goldmine for people engaging in social engineering.

The suit accused the unknown defendant with a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Attorney Daniel L. Brown, who filed the suit on behalf of Thompson Hotels, declined to discuss the action except to say that Yahoo has already been subpoenaed in an attempt to learn who used its free Rocketmail email service to register the account. ®

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