February 14, 2019 By Douglas Bonderud 2 min read

The email provider VFEmail suffered a “catastrophic” hack that destroyed the company’s primary and backup data servers in the U.S.

As reported by Krebs on Security, the attack began on the morning of Feb. 11, when the company’s official Twitter account warned that all external-facing systems across multiple data centers were down. Hours later, VFEmail tweeted that it “caught the perp in the middle of formatting the backup server.” Just after 1 p.m., the company reported that all disks on every server had been formatted with every VM, file server and backup server lost.

Only a small, Netherlands-based backup server was left untouched. VFEmail founder Rick Romero (@Havokmon) tweeted on Feb. 12 that the company is “effectively gone” and will likely not return.

VFEmail’s Exceptional Circumstances

Most email attacks aren’t looking to destroy data. As reported by Healthcare IT News, healthcare email fraud attacks are up by nearly 500 percent over the last two years, while IT Pro Portal noted that threat actors are now leveraging compromised accounts to gain email access and steal confidential data. Even ransomware attacks — which include the threat of data destruction — are typically used as leverage to generate corporate payouts.

The VFEmail hack, meanwhile, had no clear aim: No ransom message was reported, and there’s no evidence that data was exfiltrated before being destroyed. Romero managed to track the attacker to an IP address hosted in Bulgaria — likely just a virtual machine (VM) that was used as a launch pad for the attack.

He also noted that to compromise VFEmail’s mail hosts, VM hosts and SQL server clusters, the attacker would have needed multiple passwords, as reported by Ars Technica. While some of the mail service is back up and running, there’s only a slim chance that U.S. email data will be recovered.

Back Up Your Mission-Critical Email Data

Email clients come with inherent risks and no guarantees. While layered email security can help reduce the risk of malware infections and ransomware attacks, it can’t prevent host-side attacks like the one VFEmail experienced.

Security teams should follow best practices for defending against threats that destroy data, such as ransomware attacks. According to experts, data backups are key to reducing the risk of complete data loss — while this typically applies to local files, enterprises using hosted email providers to send and receive mission-critical data should consider creating an on- or off-site email backup to combat the threat of catastrophic data destruction.

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