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Hackers target county phones

Outgoing calls appeared to be coming from, and were billed to, Bell County

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BELTON — An unknown number of hackers attacked the Bell County phone system last week and rang up potentially thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges.

Jim Chandler, director of Bell County’s technological services department, told the Bell County Commissioners Court on Monday that on two separate occasions hackers were able to exploit weaknesses in the county’s phone system to enable them to place outgoing calls that appeared to be coming from, and be billed to, Bell County.

In the first attack, the hackers targeted a weak password on an extension in the Road and Bridge Department, Chandler said. Part of the problem was the minimal password requirements currently in place for the county’s phone system.

“Passwords on the phone system only need to be between four and seven characters long,” Chandler said. “This password was only four characters long and that’s only 1,000 possible combinations.”

Once they gained access to the phone’s automated menu system, the hackers were able to activate the remote-dial feature, which allowed them to route international calls from a third-party number through the Bell County switchboard.

By routing the calls through Bell County’s phone system, all the relevant charges would be billed to the county.

As Chandler explained the attack to the commissioners, they zeroed in on the most obvious question of why were the features there to be exploited in the first place.

Chandler said the remote-dial feature and international calling capabilities were enabled years before he was hired and that once the hack was detected by AT&T’s fraud department, they were disabled.

He also told the commissioners that all of the calls were about 10 seconds in length.

“It was like someone was dialing numbers, connecting and hanging up,” Chandler said.

While this type of attack is new in Bell County, it’s one of the most common types of phone fraud in the world. Known as private branch exchange fraud, because it targets the telephone exchange for one particular business or office, these attacks cost U.S. companies billions of dollars per year.

An October report from the Communication Fraud Control Association, a communication security organization, estimated that total phone fraud costs communications companies more than $40 billion annually.

Private branch exchange hacking alone cost telecom carriers $4.42 billion last year.

A large part of the reason for the high cost of private branch exchange hacking is the attack is relatively easy to execute.

For Sean Brown, a director of network operations with 15 years in the telecommunications industry, phone fraud is all too common.

“Up to 10 percent of the calls that are going on at any given time are fraudulent,” Brown said. He said in his experience, multiple short-duration long-distance calls, like those Bell County experienced, are the hallmark of a “connect charge scam.”

“Companies in South Africa and South America will charge these really high fees to connect to a phone number, like $10 a call,” Brown said. “And they get a lot of connections in a short time and then send the bills to U.S. carriers.”

Most “legacy phone systems,” those that still rely on private branch exchanges instead of using voice over Internet protocols, “don’t have the reporting capacity to tell a user if something is going wrong,” he said.