Ransomware attack forces Arkansas CEO to fire 300 employees days before Christmas

The
chief executive officer of a telemarketing company in Sherwood, Arkansas has
let go 300 employees after the company failed to recover from a ransomware
infection months back.

In a
deeply apologetic letter to employees, The Heritage Company CEO Sandra Franecke
said two months ago their servers were attacked by hackers who demanded a
ransom to unlock the systems. Despite paying the attackers what they demanded,
the company struggled to get back on its feet. The company could no longer pay
wages so the CEO decided to close shop and let everyone go.

The letter, obtained by local news station KATV, is reproduced below in full:

Dear
Employees of The Heritage Company,

I
know that you are all angry, confused, and hurt by the recent turn of events.
Please know that I am just as devastated as you all are, especially that we had
to do this at this particular time of year.

Please
know that we would have NEVER gone to this extreme if we were not forced to.
Now is the time to be honest and open about what is REALLY happening so that
all of you know the truth, directly from me, especially since some of you have
incorrect information and the spreading of untruths thru social media is
damaging us further.

Unfortunately,
approximately two months ago our Heritage servers were attacked by malicious
software that basically “held us hostage for ransom” and we were forced to pay
the crooks to get the “key” just to get our systems back up and running. Since
then, IT has been doing everything they can to bring all our systems back up,
but they still have quite a long way to go. Also, since then, I have been doing
my utmost best to keep our doors open, even going as far as paying your wages
from my own money to keep us going until we could recoup what we lost due to
the cyber attack.

I
know how confusing this must be, especially after we just gave away 7 cruises
just this week, but again, that was money that I spent out of my own personal
money to give you the best Christmas gift I possibly could, but that was before
our systems were hacked. Afterwards I didn’t want to disappoint everyone by
taking them back. We started the Prizes and Bingo the first of November when
again I was being told the systems would be fixed that week.

What
we hope is just a temporary setback is an opportunity for IT to continue their
work to bring our systems back and for leadership to restructure different
areas in the company in an attempt to recoup our losses which have been
hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It
is extremely important right now that we all keep the faith and hope alive that
The Heritage Company can and will come back from this setback. It is also
important that we all keep to the facts and keep calm. And so, I ask that you
please share this with the employees who may not be on this page or may not
have Facebook. To share this out of the group, you will need to copy the text
of this post and share it as your own status.

Please
know that when I made my speech at the “Future is Bright” luncheons, everything
was sincere and heartfelt. We had no way of predicting that our systems would
be hacked at that time. Once we were hit with this terrible virus we were told
time and time again that things would be better each week, and then the next
week, and the week after that. Accounting was down and we had no way of
processing funds. The mail center was down as we had no way of sending
statements out, which meant that no funds could come in.

Had
we known at the time that this would have hurt the company this badly, we would
have made a statement to the employees long ago to warn everyone what this
might mean. The ONLY option we had at this time was to close the doors
completely or suspend our services until we can regroup and reorganize and get
our systems running again. Of course, we chose to suspend operations as
Heritage is a company that doesn’t like to give up.

I
also want to apologize for the way many of you found out we were closing our
doors. When we left the meeting yesterday afternoon, everyone had a plan for
what was to happen, but we never considered that the word would spread so fast
and far to each of you before your managers could speak to the employees who
had already gone home for the day. No one is sorrier than I about you finding
out from other sources who did not necessarily have the correct information.

So
here it is: The Heritage Company is temporarily suspending our services. On
January 2nd, there will be a message left on the weather line. That message
will give you updated information on the restructuring of the company and
whether or not we’ve made progress on our system.

In
the meantime, I urge each and every one of you to please keep faith with us. We
know how extremely hard you all work for each of the wonderful charities we all
represent. We want you all back where you belong in two weeks’ time. We are a
family, and my hope is that we will stay a family for a long time, despite this
setback.

My
mother started this company 61 years ago, and I am committed to keeping
Heritage open if it is in my power to do so.

Sincerely,

Sandra Franecke,

Owner
and CEO,

The
Heritage Company”

Interviewed
by reporters, one disgruntled employee, Dave Denny said, “let your employees
know something, give them a chance to make our own decisions for ourselves, not
really take our own lives in your own hands and basically play God with
everybody’s lives.”

The
layoff comes mere days before Christmas, leaving many unsure if they will start
2020 with a job. The CEO asks everyone to check back on January 2 to see if
they will get their jobs back.

This is not the first time ransomware shutters a business in the United States this year. Brookside ENT and Hearing Center, a doctor’s office in Battle Creek, Michigan was forced to close its doors after hackers infected its systems with ransomware, compromising everything from patient records to billing information. Unlike The Heritage Company, Brookside ENT did not pay the ransom, likely figuring the incident would have the same outcome anyway.

These
attacks, and many others reported in the past year alone, underscore the dire
need to protect any business, big or small, from ransomware.

While
large enterprises are typically backed by a dedicated security operations
center and cyber-insurers, the same cannot be said for small and medium-sized
businesses with tight IT budgets and cybersecurity skill gaps.

Bitdefender helps small and medium-sized businesses fight ransomware with its Small Office Security offering, which offers complete protection for Windows, macOS, Android and iOS devices. The solution not only protects businesses against ransomware and all new and existing cyber threats, it also helps prevent data breaches and secures clients’ personal and financial data. Best of all, installation takes under 5 minutes and no IT skills are needed. Learn more.

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