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Travelodge blames 'vindictive individual' for email database breach

Hacker or disaffected worker mystery remains

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Travelodge UK has confirmed that a customer database security breach was behind the recent run of spam emails to its customers.

Customers complained in June after receiving spam messages punting suspicious-looking "work-at-home opportunities" to email addresses they only ever used to make reservations with the hotel chain. Travelodge admitted the incident, which it has repeatedly assured clients did not involve personal financial information. It promised to bolster its security, as well as referring the matter to data privacy watchdogs at the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

Travelodge assured customers at the time that it had not sold on its customer details, which left the possibility that the exposed email list has either been leaked or that the relevant database had been hacked. Reg reader Jeff, one of those exposed to the Travelodge spam, pressed the hotel chain for a fuller explanation, minus the corporate marketing speak. Jeff forwarded copies of a second work-at-home spam email, sent in mid-July, with his query.

In reply, Jeff received an ambiguously worded statement from Travelodge (extract below) that suggests Travelodge's email database was indeed hacked into prior to the distribution of the offending messages. Travelodge has thus far failed to respond to attempts to clarify whether the "vindictive" individual who had "access to an unencrypted section of our marketing database" was an external hacker or a disaffected or corrupt worker.

Over the last two weeks, we have had a team of independent investigative specialists working endlessly to examine why a small number of our customers received a spam email, from a third party, to their Travelodge registered email address.

This enquiry has thoroughly examined our own IT infrastructures and databases and those belonging to our suppliers as well. The key findings from this report have revealed that we have been the unfortunate victims of a malicious attack because of the vindictive actions of one individual, who had access to an unencrypted section of our marketing database.

We can confirm no financial data has been stolen, accessed or compromised. This information is held on a standalone, off-site separate server. The data itself is encrypted and complies with current best practice standards and is audited to PCI (Payment Card Industry) requirements.

A small number of customers' names and email addresses were stolen, and these were used for the spam email. We can also confirm that no home or business address details were taken. The report has confirmed that as a fully PCI compliant organisation, we have robust security IT measures in place, and that our website is fully secure. Our customers should have no concerns about continuing to book with us.

However in light of this incident, we will invest in further protecting and strengthening our data security and it is our intention to encrypt customers' names and email addresses to prevent any future occurrence.

As previously stated, we informed the Information Commissioner's Office of this issue as soon as we found out and they are satisfied that we handled this incident appropriately.

The privacy and security of our customers' personal information is of the utmost importance and please be assured, we have taken every step to ensure this doesn't happen again. Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused some of you.

I can reassure you that it's perfectly safe to book at www.travelodge.co.uk.

The offending spam messages are nothing out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, Travelodge customers are annoyed that these particular spam emails stem from lax security at the hotel chain. The fact that the breach at Travelodge follows a rash of similar breaches this year – most notably involving email marketing outsourcer Epsilon – hardly helps either.

In the grander scheme of things, this is a level one security screw-up, but Travelodge's apparent reluctance to provide a timely and complete explanation of what happened continues to annoy at least a portion of Travelodge's customer base.

"Personally I would like to see a full statement of who did it, why and how, followed by what they are doing to prevent a repeat," Jeff told El Reg. "I don't really need to know the name of the miscreant, but would like to know he got something worse than a payoff to leave." ®

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