Did prominent casino chain MGM Resorts gamble with its customers’ data? That’s a question a lot of those customers are probably asking themselves after a cyberattack took down many of MGM’s systems for several days. And it may have all started with a phone call, if reports citing the hackers themselves are to be believed.
MGM, which owns more than two dozen hotel and casino locations around the world as well as an online sports betting arm, reported on September 11 that a “cybersecurity issue” was affecting some of its systems, which it shut down to “protect our systems and data.” For the next several days, reports said everything from hotel room digital keys to slot machines weren’t working. Even websites for its many properties went offline for a while. Guests found themselves waiting in hours-long lines to check in and get physical room keys or getting handwritten receipts for casino winnings as the company went into manual mode to stay as operational as possible. MGM Resorts didn’t respond to a request for comment, and has only posted vague references to a “cybersecurity issue” on Twitter/X, reassuring guests it was working to resolve the issue and that its resorts were staying open.
It took about 10 days, but MGM announced on September 20 that its hotels and casinos were “operating normally” again, although there may be some “intermittent issues” and MGM Rewards may not be available.
“We thank you for your patience,” the company said in its statement. It did not provide any additional information on the reason why its systems went down in the first place.
The attacks show how even organizations that you might expect to be especially locked down and protected from cybersecurity attacks — say, massive casino chains that pull in tens of millions of dollars every day — are still vulnerable if the hacker uses the right attack vector. And that’s almost always a human being and human nature. In this case, it appears that publicly available information and a persuasive phone manner were enough to give the hackers all they needed to get into MGM’s systems and create what is likely to be some very expensive havoc that will hurt both the resort chain and many of its guests.
Spiders and Cats are claiming responsibility for the attack
A group known as Scattered Spider is believed to be responsible for the MGM breach, and it reportedly used ransomware made by ALPHV, or BlackCat, a ransomware-as-a-service operation. Scattered Spider specializes in social engineering, where attackers manipulate victims into performing certain actions by impersonating people or organizations the victim has a relationship with. The hackers are said to be especially good at “vishing,” or gaining access to systems through a convincing phone call rather than phishing, which is done through an email.
Scattered Spider’s members are thought to be in their late teens and early 20s, based in Europe and possibly the US, and fluent in English — which makes their vishing attempts much more convincing than, say, a call from someone with a Russian accent and only a working knowledge of English. In this case, it appears that the hackers found an employee’s information on LinkedIn and impersonated them in a call to MGM’s IT help desk to obtain credentials to access and infect the systems. A subsequent Bloomberg report, citing an executive at cybersecurity company Okta, blamed a successful social engineering attack on the help desk as well. MGM is a client of Okta’s and the company has been assisting MGM in the wake of the attack, the report said.
Someone claiming to be a representative of Scattered Spider told the Financial Times that it stole and encrypted MGM’s data and is demanding a payment in crypto to release it. This was the backup plan; the group initially planned to hack the company’s slot machines but weren’t able to, the representative claimed.
If that all has you thinking that we’re in the middle of a remake of Ocean’s 13, you should also know that it may not be accurate. ALPHV/BlackCat is denying parts of these reports, especially the slot machine hacking attempt. The group posted a message on September 14 claiming responsibility for the attack but denying that it was perpetrated by teenagers in the US and Europe or that anyone tried to tamper with slot machines. It also criticized what it said was inaccurate reporting on the hack and said it hadn’t officially spoken to anyone about the hack, and “most likely” wouldn’t in the future. The message said that data was stolen from MGM, which has thus far refused to engage with the hackers or pay any kind of ransom.
It seems that MGM wasn’t the only casino chain hit by a recent cyberattack. Caesars Entertainment paid millions of dollars to hackers who breached its systems around the same time as MGM and was able to continue operations as normal. Caesars admitted to the breach in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on September 14, where it said an “outsourced IT support vendor” was the victim of a “social engineering attack” that resulted in sensitive data about members of its customer loyalty program being stolen. Though the method is very similar to those reportedly used by Scattered Spider and the attack happened at nearly the same time as MGM’s, the alleged representative of the group told the Financial Times that it wasn’t behind it. Although, again, another group seems to be denying that Scattered Spider did any of the attacks, or at least how the events have been reported isn’t accurate.
Why vishing works
Though we don’t yet have confirmation of who attacked MGM or even how, the alleged method, vishing, is a known cybersecurity threat that many organizations haven’t sufficiently protected themselves from. A portmanteau of “voice” and “phishing,” vishing, like all social engineering techniques, targets what’s usually the weakest link in the cybersecurity chain: us. More than 90 percent of cyberattacks start with phishing, and it’s one of the most common ways that organizations are penetrated as well. And vishing is a particularly effective avenue of attack: A 2022 IBM report found that targeted phishing attacks that included phone calls were three times more effective than those that didn’t.
“There’s always a little back door, and all the best defenses and all the expensive tools can be fooled by one good social engineering attack,” Peter Nicoletti, global chief information security officer at cybersecurity company Check Point Software, told Vox.
Ransomware attacks aren’t unusual these days. They’ve shut down major gas pipelines, banks, hospitals, schools, meat producers, governments, and journalism outlets. At this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find an industry or sector that hasn’t been hit by a ransomware attack. “Vishing,” on the other hand, is a method that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention yet, but we may well see a lot more.
“What we’re seeing, especially in the new age of artificial intelligence, is the attackers are leveraging not only hacked information that they find about you, but also all of your social profile information,” Nicoletti said.
Stephanie Carruthers, who is a “chief people hacker” for IBM, uses social engineering to test client organizations’ systems to find potential vulnerabilities. That includes vishing, which gives her a front-row seat on how it can be used to gain access to a target.
“From the attacker point of view, vishing is easy,” she told Vox. “With phishing, I have to set up infrastructure, I have to craft an email and do all these extra technical things. But with vishing ... it’s picking up the phone and calling someone and asking for a password reset. It’s pretty simple.”
One of the keys to a successful vishing attack is knowing enough about a system, company, or employee to pull off the impersonation. You can learn a lot about people and organizations just from what’s publicly available — including who companies’ high-value targets are.
“It makes the job of an attacker so much easier,” Carruthers said. “Things like LinkedIn and different types of people search engines, that is the first step into making a successful vish.” From there, the attacker can use other social engineering techniques like adding a sense of authority or urgency to a request. Organizations with inadequate verification processes to prove that the caller is who they claim to be are especially vulnerable. “It’s something we see happen all the time,” Carruthers added.
It doesn’t help that companies often overlook vishing in their employee cybersecurity training, and they aren’t asking people like Carruthers to test for vishing vulnerabilities, as they do for phishing. A highly publicized attack like MGM’s might change that. But it may also lead to an increase in vishing attacks, now that other hackers see that it gets results.
So what can you do to protect yourself? When it comes to attempts to vish you personally, the same general rules about being careful what information you share and with whom apply. Don’t give out your login credentials and passwords, and be careful about your publicly available data as well, since attacks may use it against you (or to impersonate you to trick someone else). Verify that people are who they claim to be before engaging with them. Use different passwords across all of your accounts, so that if someone gets access to one of them, they aren’t then able to get into others, and use multi-factor authentication for another layer of protection.
In this case, however, there’s not much people can do when a company they trusted with their data didn’t have sufficient systems in place to protect it — which a lot of them don’t. But they can do a few things after the fact to minimize any possible damage. Nicoletti says MGM customers should check their bank statements in case their debit card numbers were exposed in the breach, if not ask their bank for a new card entirely. He also says MGM customers should be especially wary of emails claiming to be from MGM, in case the hackers obtained customers’ email addresses. And definitely don’t click on any links or provide any credentials if asked.
Carruthers recommends that MGM customers be on the lookout for weird charges to their credit cards. She also recommends that they consider freezing their credit, which is free and easy to do and prevents would-be identity thieves from taking out credit cards in their names.
Update, September 21, 2:50 pm ET: This story was originally published September 15 and has been updated multiple times, most recently with the news that MGM says its systems are operating normally again.