3 December 2018

Marriott announces security breach could affect up to 500 million guests

On November 30, Marriott announced that it is investigating a data security incident involving the Starwood guest reservation database.

The company has determined that there was unauthorised access to the database as of November 19, 2018. The database contains guest information relating to reservations at Starwood properties* on or before September 10, 2018. Starwood brands include: W Hotels, St Regis, Sheraton Hotels & Resorts, Westin Hotels & Resorts, Element Hotels, Aloft Hotels, The Luxury Collection, Tribute Portfolio, Le Méridien Hotels & Resorts, as well as Four Points by Sheraton and Design Hotels. Starwood branded timeshare properties are also included.

On September 8, 2018, Marriott received an alert from an internal security tool regarding an attempt to access the Starwood guest reservation database in the US. Marriott engaged security experts to help determine what occurred, and learned that there had been unauthorised access to the Starwood network since 2014. 

"The company recently discovered that an unauthorised party had copied and encrypted information, and took steps towards removing it. On November 19, 2018, Marriott was able to decrypt the information and determined that the contents were from the Starwood guest reservation database," Marriott said in a statement.

The company estimates that the encrypted information affects a maximum of 500 million guests who made a reservation at a Starwood property. "For approximately 327 million of these guests, the information includes some combination of name, mailing address, phone number, email address, passport number, Starwood Preferred Guest account information, date of birth, gender, arrival and departure information, reservation date, and communication preferences. 

"For some, the information also includes payment card numbers and payment card expiration dates, but the payment card numbers were encrypted using Advanced Encryption Standard encryption (AES-128). There are two components needed to decrypt the payment card numbers, and at this point, Marriott has not been able to rule out the possibility that both were taken. For the remaining guests, the information was limited to name and sometimes other data such as mailing address, email address, or other information," the company said.

“We deeply regret this incident happened,” said Arne Sorenson, Marriott’s President and CEO. “We fell short of what our guests deserve and what we expect of ourselves. We are doing everything we can to support our guests, and using lessons learned to be better moving forward.

“Today, Marriott is reaffirming our commitment to our guests around the world. We are working hard to ensure our guests have answers to questions about their personal information, with a dedicated website and call centre. We will also continue to support the efforts of law enforcement and to work with leading security experts to improve. Finally, we are devoting the resources necessary to phase out Starwood systems and accelerate the ongoing security enhancements to our network.”

Marriott reported this incident to law enforcement and continues to support their investigation. The company has already begun notifying regulatory authorities. Marriott has also taken the following steps to help guests monitor and protect their information:

Dedicated website and call centre
A dedicated website and call centre has been set up to answer questions about the incident. A set of frequently-asked questions on the site may be supplemented over time.

The call centre is open seven days a week and is available in multiple languages. There are numbers on the website available for Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and the UAE. Call volume may be high, Marriott said.

Email notification
Marriott has been sending emails since November 30, 2018, to affected guests whose email addresses are in the Starwood guest reservation database.

Free WebWatcher enrollment
Marriott is providing guests the opportunity to enroll in WebWatcher free of charge for one year, but only in the US, UK and Canada. WebWatcher monitors Internet sites where personal information is shared and generates an alert to the consumer if evidence of the consumer’s personal information is found. Due to regulatory and other reasons, WebWatcher or similar products are not available in all countries, Marriott explained.

"Don't Google WebWatcher," said John Shier, Senior Security Advisor, Sophos, warning that hackers will already be capitalising on the incident. "If you Google 'WebWatcher' you won't find the monitoring service, you'll find lots of links to spyware of the same name. Don't sign up for that. Do follow the links to country-specific versions of the official breach site. You cannot sign up for monitoring from the main breach page, you have to go to the all-but-identical versions of the page for the US, UK or Canada."

"The potential fallout from the Marriott’s Starwood data breach should be alarming to anyone who has stayed at a Starwood property in the last four years. Not only are guests at risk for opportunistic phishing attacks, but targeted phishing emails are almost certain, as well as phone scams and potential financial fraud. 

"Unlike previous breaches, this attack also included passport numbers for some individuals who are now at increased risk for identity theft. At this point, however, it's unclear what level of exposure each individual victim has been subject to. Until then, all potential victims should assume the worst and take all necessary precautions to protect themselves from all manner of scams," he added.

Victims should be on alert for spearphishing, Shier noted. "This creates the perfect scenario for cybercriminals to actually spearphish consumers because they have this type of detailed information," he said.

And while Marriott has said it will email Starwood Preferred Guests who may be impacted, he said that recipients should not click on links in emails or other communication that seem to have come from Marriott or Starwood hotels. "It’s possible that criminals will try to take advantage of this by sending malicious tweets or phishing emails that look like they’ve come from the company. Hover over URLs and links to see the address before you click. Look at the email address to see where it is from," he advised.

Credit cards should be monitored for suspicious activity as well. "As a safety precaution, change the password to your online credit card account. If you use the same password for similar financial management websites, immediately change the password on those websites. As a best security practice, always choose a different, strong password for each sensitive account," he said.

He also suggested changing passwords to Starwood Preferred Guest accounts.