HACK ATTACK People are losing their life savings to phone scams – inside Ireland’s plan to close net on vicious cyber crime
GARDAI and top UK cops are cracking down on organized crime gangs flooding Irish phones with scam texts and calls.
In an exclusive interview, cyber security minister Ossian Smyth describes how people lose life savings to phone scams.
The Green TD also reveals:
- DETAILS of the government’s plan to crack down on phone companies.
- HOW One year after the HSE hack, other countries asked Ireland for help after Conti attacked their hospitals.
- HOW FEARS THAT RUSSIA WOULD LAUNCH CYBER ATTACKS ON THE WEST AFTER THE WAR WITH UKRAINE WERE INFO
In recent months, criminals have flooded Irish phones with calls and texts from banks, insurance companies, TV providers, and Revenue.
The scam messages are so common that Ireland’s cyber security minister called a meeting with the three major phone companies, the phone regulator, and Gardai to stop the gangs behind them.
Garda officers told Minister Smyth that victims have lost tens of thousands of euros to fake texts and calls.
“Gardai told me these scams steal people’s life savings,” he said.
“You get a text saying ‘there’s a problem with your account, call this number
“You call and someone convinces you this is the bank, and someone can lose their life savings.
“Gardai told us they’ve seen people lose their life savings and have a large loan stolen as well.
“Victims feel weakened and humiliated.
“They’re telling the Gardai and feel defeated and guilty.
If criminals use the same method as the bank or Revenue, that’s a problem.
How can you tell if they copy it exactly and use the same number?
“If someone had an Irish accent? Anyone can fall for this. We could all be duped.”
Gardai are working with the British National Crime Agency to catch global crime gangs targeting Irish and British phone users.
Minister Smyth also asked ComReg to look at how phone companies are tackling scams so he can determine Ireland’s safest network.
Licensed phone companies run these networks, he said. We want this stopped.
“We’ll look at volume and which network is reducing it the most.
Eir, Three, and Vodafone all use different security measures.
“I asked the Regulator if we can choose which network has the fewest scams so there is competition.”
Deputy Smyth became Junior Minister in the Department of Communications with responsibility for cyber security two weeks before Ireland’s entire health service was shut down by the biggest cyber attack in the State’s history.
Before he was appointed, the Russia-based Conti ransomware gang was already inside the HSE’s networks, stealing patient data they threatened to publish on the dark web if the State didn’t pay €19million.
Minister Smyth was sleeping in a hotel near St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin when he got a 5 am call about the HSE hack and a meeting.
“I met the Taoiseach and Tanaiste,” he said.
“We were in Government buildings with the head of cyber security and a Cyber Security Centre official.
We were asked to put our phones in bags at the start of an unusual meeting. Very serious.
“Our health service was shut down,” they said. Every computer’s off.
“They’ve lost network access.”
Doctors don’t have computers. They can’t access lab results or medical records; emergency departments are backed up.
The Conti gang demanded $20 million for the HSE’s decryption keys.
They threatened to post sensitive patient data online.
Minister Smyth said the government never considered paying the ransom and instead sought help from the US, Britain, and Europe.
“We contacted the British, NCA, and FBI,” he said.
“The U.S. Embassy was helpful. So were our EU partners, in particular the Polish, who have been attacked by that gang before a number of times.”
Simon Coveney also met with Sergey Lavrov.
The Conti gang surrendered the decryption keys to the HSE when police and military intelligence turned on them.
Before targeting Ireland, cyber criminals attacked US private hospitals.
Last week, they ransomed Greenland’s health service after launching a similar cyberattack.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s hospital systems were in chaos after a Conti mob attack in March, and their health minister called for help.
“Newfoundland’s health minister called me when they were attacked,” said Minister Smyth. Similar situations existed.
“Other countries have been attacked, but I won’t name them because they’re keeping quiet. They denied any hacking.
The €100m HSE hack was a cyber security wake-up call for the government.
Since then, they’ve given Ireland’s National Cyber Security Centre an extra €2.5 million a year, tripling its budget.
The NCSC, which had 25 employees, is getting a new state-of-the-art building and will hire 45 more by 2022 and 70 more after that.
Richard Browne temporarily filled the position of National Cyber Security Centre director after more than a year.
The government doubled the salary to €185,000 to attract top talent, but Mr Browne was given the job permanently.
Last year, over 3,000 cyberattacks were detected.
Coombe Hospital in Dublin and Rehab Group were attacked successfully.
Earlier this year, there were fears that Ireland could be at risk of Russian cyberattacks due to Europe’s economic sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime after the invasion of Ukraine.
The government warned financial institutions to boost their cyber defences because of Russian threats.
Despite early warnings, Minister Smyth said Russia’s cyber attacks haven’t materialised in Ireland or Europe.
“It didn’t come. At European Council meetings, my foreign counterparts said the same thing. They’re blind.
“Despite a lot of activity between Russia and Ukraine, including Russian attempts to hack Ukrainian facilities and vice versa, it hasn’t spread beyond that.
We’ve seen fewer State-level attacks, but the same ransomware attacks, so crime has continued.