Sunday, February 10, 2019

«The cyber attack turned my whole world upside down»

Two years ago, Yolanda G. was the victim of a cyber attack while on a business trip. Hackers obtained the login details for two of her social media profiles via the public hotel WiFi network. They stole private photos and drove the professional and mother to the brink of despair with fake posts and threatening emails.

Ms G., what has changed for you since your business trip to Budapest to visit important clients in February 2017?

A lot. I have become a much more cautious, probably even a more anxious person than I was before.

What happened?

After a stressful but successful day with a lot of meetings, I was relaxing back in my hotel room in the city centre, browsing social media on my smartphone via the public WiFi. I chatted to colleagues and my family, posted a couple of photos – and had no idea that, probably at exactly the same time, a hacker was in the room next to mine accessing all my login details and passwords via the hotel WiFi.

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How did you eventually find out about this attack?

I flew back to Switzerland without any idea it had happened. How could I have known? I was looking forward to a relaxing weekend at home, which was not to be. I had friends and colleagues calling me on Saturday afternoon, flustered, in some cases even angry, asking what I was thinking. It turns out that a hacker from the Budapest hotel had been doing all sorts on my Facebook and LinkedIn profiles in my name overnight. Private photos of my children, which had only been accessible to close family members, were suddenly sent to important business contacts – in some cases even with lewd comments in perfect German. As I surveyed the chaos, it all became too much for me and I collapsed.

How did you respond?

I didn't do anything at first. After I collapsed, my husband took me to A&E because he was concerned, and I was able to physically recover a bit there. But inside, I was still in turmoil. I had to explain what had happened to all the contacts who had been affronted, and that alone took days, even weeks – and a lot of energy. That's what really crippled me to start with. But what was much worse was the burning question: what did the hacker still have in store for me?

Was your concern justified?

Unfortunately, yes. The social media mess had been more or less cleared up, all the accounts involved had been deleted and, in some cases, re-created with new codes and passwords. However, I would never upload photos of my family and children again, as this is exactly what the cyber criminals homed in on. They suddenly started regularly emailing me, threatening to post the photos in all sorts of forums if I did not transfer ransom money to them.

How did that make you feel?

Completely powerless and defenceless. I heeded the advice of everyone I spoke to and did not respond to the demands for money and, to my knowledge, the photos have not yet been abused as threatened. They are just normal photos of children. But I still feel guilty even today that I betrayed my family's privacy. This incident turned my whole world upside down. And I would be lying if I were to say that everything is now back to normal.

Do you still receive emails from the hackers?

They have become much less frequent. I have also enlisted expert help to try to somehow trace the senders, but have not had any luck yet. I do have qualms about this as I sometimes think that it could anger the hackers or rile them up. And the fact that they know what my children look like and where they live makes me feel really uneasy. Every now and then, I am tortured by awful nightmarish fantasies.

Has the cyber attack affected you professionally?

Fortunately, my employer has been very understanding and gave me the time I needed to process what has happened to some extent. Of course, out of loyalty to the company, I wanted to do anything I could to clear up any misunderstandings caused by the fake posts and avoid any reputational damage. Business partners have also been very positive and supportive in this respect.

(*) Name changed

Yolanda G. (*), 42, department manager at a major Swiss trading company

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