Malicious Ghost Callers Torment Erie

For five hours last weekend, Erie County’s emergency services line was under cyber attack. As reports, the northwestern Pennsylvania county endured a distributed-denial-of-service attack that prevented legitimate callers from successfully contacting the 911 call center. Automated bot calls flooded the phone lines with spoof calls, ringing in every seven seconds to keep communications jammed.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Erie County Public Safety Director, John Grappy. “Ultimately, someone who truly needs that service that’s having some type of an emergency … is unable to call us. That’s a concern for all of us.”

The County declined to say how it identified real callers, but did note that the attack was limited to cell phone and wireless devices. Calls using landline phones or reaching out via text avoided the cyber roadblock. A recently published report by Cloudfare, an organization devoted to identifying and nullifying cyber attacks, noted that incidents of this sort are on the rise.

Perpetrators of these attacks launch “threat actors to take control of online computers, routers, IoT devices, or other endpoints to leverage as sources of attack traffic,” states the Cloudfare report. “These machines are infected with malware and then weaponized in a ‘botnet’ that is activated by remote control. When the IP address of a targeted server or network is established,” the report continues, “Each bot sends simultaneous requests to that target with the intention of pushing it to overflow capacity, resulting in a denial-of-service to normal traffic. Since each bot is a legitimate device, separating attack traffic from legitimate traffic can be extremely difficult.”

“Numbers and call attributes can be easily spoofed,” the FBI confirmed in a February 2021 public service announcement, “making it difficult to differentiate legitimate calls from malicious ones.”

Erie County 911 Coordinator, John Durlin said that the recently implemented Next Generation 911 system helped manage the situation in a way the outdated system could not have handled, according to “The possibility is there,” said Durlin of another possible attack. “This isn’t the first place in the nation to have this type of attack.”

Durlin suggested that it would be wise to look up the local phone numbers for emergency services and save those numbers as cell phone contacts. He also advised the public to know the physical location of local police and fire departments as showing up in person may be a viable option for those seeking help.

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