In the last few years we’ve heard a lot about “ransomware” attacks, but usually the targets are large organizations like governments or big businesses. In other words, groups with lots of money to throw at a hacker holding their data or online access hostage. However, that changed on July Fourth of 2021, as a ransomware attack scrambled the data of over 1,000 businesses across the U.S., even prompting President Biden to comment on the attack. In this case, the attack hobbled Famous Smoke Shop in Pennsylvania for a week, causing the entire operation to shut down while the owner figured out how to unscramble his data.
Typical ransomware attacks start with a vulnerability somewhere in a business or organization’s software stack. That could be a third-party vendor they use for financial transactions, or it could be something as simple as an inventory system that can gain access to user accounts. The Famous Smoke Shop owners say that no financial information was taken, however, as that information was completely handled by another party who says it was not part of the attack.
What did make it into the hands of what authorities believe was a Russian hacker group, REvil, was customer data. That could include addresses, names, and any of the usual customer data a store which has been around since 1939 might have on hand. The attack prevented the shop from opening for a week, however, because they could not access this customer data as it was “scrambled” in a way that made it difficult to retrieve. Ransomware attackers make a calculated decision to extort business owners for this reason: Is it worth being offline for a week or more? In this case, REvil wanted over $45,000 via cryptocurrency to unscramble the data.
As the owner remained adamant, a team was able to unblock the data and re-open the store. Famous Smoke Shop is a bit of a rare gem, having been in business for a long time but also one of the cigar retailers not owned by a cigar manufacturer. Much as tasting rooms have become a great way to make sales for alcohol producers, cigar lounges are increasingly owned by manufacturers and are plying their wares as opposed to offering a range of products by other vendors.
Famous Smoke Shop is one of the largest cigar retailers in the world precisely because it carries a wide assortment built up after years of expert curation and experience. The owners and employees are experts in cigars, which is why the place has been in business for over 75 years. The ransomware attack may have put it behind by a week or so, but it seems Famous will continue to operate as it has for all these years having defeated the attackers and recovering their data.