What do you do if your HR benefits and payroll vendor suffers a cyber-attack and payroll can’t be run? Do you have a backup plan for running payroll? How will you communicate with your employees? And if your benefits and payroll vendor has a cyber-incident and your employees’ highly sensitive data is exfiltrated, what will be your response and your liability?

Here is a perfect tabletop exercise that is real.

This week, it is being reported that PrismHR (which provides online payroll, benefits and human resources services to professional employer organizations offering those services to small businesses) suffered a cyber-attack over the weekend that caused outages to its systems. Although there is speculation that PrismHR was the victim of a ransomware attack, it has not confirmed that is the case, only that it suffered a cyber incident.

PrismHR stated that it is looking into the incident and that payroll will not be affected this week, and that it is waiving administrative fees for the current payroll period. Obviously, depending on the results of the investigation and whether any employee data were accessed or exfiltrated, PrismHR might have reporting obligations, including to its customers and their employees.

Whatever the outcome, the scenario is a perfect tabletop exercise to plan for and determine the risk and consequences for your organization. HR, payroll, and benefits vendors collect, maintain, use, and disclose highly sensitive data of employees, so managing the risk through security due diligence and strong contractual provisions is crucial for your risk management plan.

Just as ending a relationship with an email or a text message is bad form, employers don’t usually terminate employees with an email. Nonetheless, since a message that appears to address a termination is so drastic and final, it is hard to resist opening it, if only to see if your severance  is mentioned in the email.

Hackers know that we are curious by nature, so they have created a new phishing scheme to take advantage of that to get into a target company’s networks. The scheme works like this: an email is sent to an employee from an authority in the Human Relations department stating that the individual has been terminated. An attachment to the email provides further information about the termination and the severance payout, which appears to be on Google Docs. When the victim clicks on the attachment, they are directed to a fake Google Docs page and told to click on another link. When they click on that link, they are directed to a URL to download a file.

To make the download look totally legitimate, a fake security pop-up is presented to the user asking if the user is sure s/he wants to download the file. We’ve all seen those—that is good security. That security pop-up would not be included if it were a malicious email, would it? Yes, that is what they want us to think. When the user is lured into clicking on the file, the user unknowingly downloads either a Bauer loader malware or a Bazar backdoor. Bauer has been used to deliver ransomware such as Ryuk and the Bazare backdoor attempts to gain access to networks. This information is all thanks to the invaluable research done by Area 1 Security researchers.

 Tips to take away:

  • Be wary of termination emails—if you receive one, it is probably fake
  • If you really are terminated, Human Resources will get in touch with you one way or the other
  • Continue to be vigilant about phishing schemes and spoofing campaigns using executives’ identities
  • Think twice before you click or say “I agree”
  • Don’t open any attachments or click on any links that you are not expecting

Pick up the phone to confirm suspicious emails, links or attachments.