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2 Iranian hackers charged in ransomware attack on MedStar, others

Staff and Wire Reports//November 28, 2018

2 Iranian hackers charged in ransomware attack on MedStar, others

By Staff and Wire Reports

//November 28, 2018

A sign designates an entrance to the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, Monday, March 28, 2016. Hackers crippled computer systems at a major hospital chain, MedStar Health Inc., on Monday, forcing records systems offline for thousands of patients and doctors. The FBI said it was investigating whether the unknown hackers demanded a ransom to restore systems. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)
A sign designates an entrance to the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

WASHINGTON — Two Iranian computer hackers were charged Wednesday in connection with a multimillion-dollar cybercrime and extortion scheme that targeted government agencies, cities and businesses, including MedStar Health, the Justice Department said.

Faramarz Shahi Savandi, 34, and Mohammad Mehdi Shah Mansouri, 27, are accused of creating ransomware known as SamSam that encrypted data on the computers of more than 200 victims, including the cities of Atlanta and Newark, New Jersey.

Starting in January 2016, the hackers were able to exploit cyber weaknesses, gain access to the victims’ computers and install the ransomware remotely, prosecutors said. The hackers would then allegedly encrypt the files on the computers and demand that the victims pay a ransom in bitcoin in order to have their data unlocked.

One victim included Columbia-based MedStar Health. The hospital system was attacked in March 2016. That hack forced the system’s hospitals and facilities to use paper systems and prevented patients from booking appointments.

“MedStar Health applauds the work of U.S. law enforcement officials in identifying the alleged perpetrators of the malware attack that occurred in 2016,” the system said in a statement. “As we said at the time, we took immediate action to limit the impact of this attack and restore our systems. We continued to provide safe patient care in our 10 hospitals and all of our outpatient facilities throughout this event. Then, as now, we remain focused on our core mission of providing high quality, safe patient care.”

While the hackers were after ransom, MedStar has repeatedly said it never paid any ransom.

Overall, the hackers, who are not believed to be connected to the Iranian government, were able to make about $6 million and caused the victims of the scheme to lose more than $30 million, prosecutors said.

Other victims included the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Port of San Diego and six health care companies across the U.S., according to the Justice Department.

“SamSam ransomware is a dangerous escalation of cybercrime,” said Craig Carpenito, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, where Wednesday’s indictment was unsealed. “This is a new type of cybercriminal. Money is not their sole objective. They are seeking to harm our institutions and our critical infrastructure.”

The Justice Department would not say whether any of the municipalities paid the ransom. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in April that Atlanta entered into emergency contracts worth $2.7 million to help restore the city’s computer network after the attack.

The hacking scheme was sophisticated not only because it targeted public institutions but because the hackers targeted the entities after business hours and used European-based servers to launch the remote attacks, Carpenito said.

The two men remained fugitives and were believed to be in Iran. Although the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Iran, the Justice Department expressed some confidence that the men may one day face the inside of a U.S. courtroom.

“American justice has a long arm and we will wait and eventually we’re confident that we will take these perpetrators into custody,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentein said.

Michael Balsamo of The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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