OTTAWA – The Canada Revenue Agency has temporarily suspended its online services after two cyberattacks in which hackers used thousands of stolen usernames and passwords to fraudulently obtain government services and compromise Canadians’ personal information.
A total of 5,500 CRA accounts were targeted in what the federal government described as two “credential stuffing” schemes, in which hackers use passwords and usernames from other websites to access Canadians’ accounts with the revenue agency.
The decision to suspend CRA’s online services comes at a time when many Canadians and businesses have been using the revenue agency’s website to apply for and access financial support related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government is hoping to reinstate online access for businesses on Monday, according to a senior government official. That is when companies struggling due to the pandemic can start to apply for the latest round of federal wage subsidies.
It wasn’t immediately clear what impact the suspension of services will have in terms of other federal benefits, however, including the Canada Child Benefit and Canada Emergency Response Benefit for those affected by COVID-19.
The revenue agency was also vague in terms of what victims of the attack will have to do to get their accounts reinstated after it disabled them to prevent further fraud, saying only that letters will be mailed to those who have been affected.
At least one victim says she has yet to hear anything from the government after someone hacked into her CRA account earlier this month and successfully applied for the $2,000-per-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit for COVID-19.
Leah Baverstock, a law clerk in Kitchener, Ont., says she first realized her account had been compromised and contacted the revenue agency herself when she received several emails from CRA on Aug. 7 saying she had successfully applied for the CERB.
“The lady I spoke to at CRA, she’s said: ‘This is a one-off,”’ said Baverstock, who has continued to work through the pandemic and did not apply for the support payments.
“And she told me a senior officer would be calling me within 24 hours because my account was completely locked down. And I still haven’t heard from anybody.”
Baverstock expressed frustration at the lack of contact, adding she still does not know how the hackers accessed her account. She has since contacted her bank and other financial institutions to stop the hackers from using her information to commit more fraud.
“I am quite concerned,” she said. “Somebody could be living under my name. Who knows. It’s scary. It’s really scary.”
Many of the hacked CRA accounts were targeted as part of a broader “credential stuffing” attack in which more than 9,000 accounts that Canadians use to apply for and access federal services were compromised.
Those hacked accounts were tied to GCKey, which is used by around 30 federal departments and allows Canadians to access various services such as employment insurance, veterans’ benefits and immigration applications.
“These attacks, which used passwords and usernames collected from previous hacks of accounts worldwide, took advantage of the fact that many people reuse passwords and usernames across multiple accounts,” the Treasury Board of Canada said in a statement.
One-third of those accounts successfully accessed services before all of the affected accounts were shut down, said the Treasury Board, which is responsible for managing the federal civil service as well as the public purse.
Officials are now trying to determine not only how many of those services were fraudulent while the RCMP and federal privacy commissioner have been called in to assess the scale and scope of personal information stolen.
The government warned Canadians to use unique passwords for all online accounts and to monitor them for suspicious activity.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre says more than 13,000 Canadians have been victims of fraud totalling $51 million this year. There have been 1,729 victims of COVID-19 fraud worth $5.55 million.
Feature image: A Canada Revenue Agency homepage is shown on a computer in Montreal, Sunday, August 16, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes