Risk Scenario

Midnight Blitz

On Cyber Monday, skilled hackers diminish an online retailer's credibility in mere minutes.
By: | November 13, 2014 • 8 min read
Risk Scenarios are created by Risk & Insurance editors along with leading industry partners. The hypothetical, yet realistic stories, showcase emerging risks that can result in significant losses if not properly addressed.

Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.

The Citadel

The October 2015 cover of the trade publication Retailer’s World featured a picture of Paul Vitez, general counsel for cloud host Va-Voom!, which rewrote the book on online shopping, making a billionaire of its founder, Teddy Houck.

Scenario_MidnightBlitz

In glowing prose, the author of the Retailer’s World cover story related Vitez’ impressive academic record at Haverford College, his background in finance and his role in earning for Va-Voom! the nickname of “The Citadel” for its innovative, committed approach to cyber security.

Employing the “prison, not a castle” approach to cyber security, Vitez and Va-Voom! created “honey- pots” within the Va-Voom! system, decoys which looked like they contained important data but were not actually part of the internal network.

Moving much more swiftly than its competitors, Va-Voom! also spent millions to implement chip and pin credit card technology on its credit cards, a much more secure way to store sensitive financial and personal information than the traditional magnetic strip.

Again with an eye toward short-term investment in operations and a goal of long-term success, Vitez was given carte blanche by Teddy Houck and the Va-Voom! board of directors to spend top dollar for information technology talent that had honed their skills in the high-stakes environments of the CIA and the Department of Defense.

Partner

Partner

From an information technology policy perspective, Va-Voom! was a demanding place to work. Under Vitez’ direction, the use of data encryption was heavily enforced. It also had a strict company policy barring employees from connecting personal devices to any computer equipment owned by Va-Voom! or to its network.

In 2014 and 2015, one by one, major retailers — even banking institutions — were hit by cyber attacks that undermined the public’s faith in those companies, doing serious mid- to long-term damage to their reputations. Retailers that learned only too well the degree to which they were vulnerable to attack found in Va-Voom! a business partner they felt they could trust.

Rather than being dampened by cyber fears, the trend of cyber attacks in 2014 and early 2015 actually increased the number of retailers that wanted to do business with Va-Voom!

The company’s insurance program was something of an anomaly, considering its position in the industry. Starting with a substantial retention, Va-Voom! carried property and professional liability coverage for its employees.

The company considered but never purchased coverage that would substantially indemnify the hundreds of retailers and other service providers that used its services, were Va-Voom! to be the victim of a cyber-security incident. It carried third-party liability insurance, but not as much as you would think a company of its size would carry.

“Really?” Vitez memorably said during a meeting with Steve Francis, the company’s chief risk officer and company CFO Maribel Kelly, when the subject of cyber security indemnification was broached by Va-Voom!’s broker, himself no slouch when it came to these matters.

With an eye to the merciless whims of stock market investors, Vitez and Kelly sided against Steve Francis when he argued that the cost of the premium, though it would put a slight dent in the company’s bottom line on a quarterly basis, was well worth the expense.

“Nobody manages this risk better than we do,” Vitez said, crossing his arms across his chest.

“We can and do own this risk,” he said.

Steve Francis looked at Vitez across the table but didn’t say what he was thinking. What he was thinking was, “You just bit off way more than you can chew, Mr. Haverford.”

The Blitz

Just before midnight on Nov. 30, 2015, the Monday after Thanksgiving, known in retailing as Cyber Monday, a highly sophisticated and well-coordinated cyber-attack began, erasing Va-Voom!’s considerable credibility in a matter of minutes.

Scenario_MidnightBlitz

Here’s how it unfolded.

At five minutes to midnight, the websites of 10 of the largest retailers that sold on the Va-Voom! site went down. The retailers were so in the dark about what had happened to them that it took hours to put together that the source of the attack was coming from within Va-Voom!’s vaunted information technology system.

Precisely at midnight, unidentified hackers used the stolen e-mail addresses of the 10 retailers’ customers to send Trojan Horses to the personal computers of millions of online shoppers.

The customers didn’t need to click on the e-mails or download attachments to empower the Trojan Horses. After a mere half hour in their inboxes, the e-mails activated a cyber-locking mechanism that shut the users out of their own computers. The only visible content on their screen was the logo of the retailer whose customer information was stolen.

Angry consumers, shut out of their personal computers, pick up their handheld devices to vent their frustration in instant messages and Tweets aimed at the retailers whose logos were frozen on their now-useless computer screens.




Several of the affected companies went public within hours with their conviction that the Trojan Horses that caused so much havoc emanated from the Va-Voom! network.

“Are you seeing this?” said David Cohen, the equally miffed general counsel for one of the retailers, on a phone call with his law school buddy Paul Vitez, as they tried to sort out the hell that had broken loose.

“Yes I’m seeing it,” said Vitez.

Vitez, normally a man of action, but temporarily flummoxed, became as passive as any teenager with a handheld device in their hand as he sat, scrolling through the Tweets and Facebook posts that were savaging the retailers and Va-Voom!

“What are you doing?” Cohen said impatiently when Vitez fell silent.

“Are you playing with your iPhone? We have a serious situation here, Paul!” Cohen said.

“I’m not playing with my iPhone!” Vitez shouted back before putting down his mobile device and trying to regain control of his emotions.

“I know we have a problem David, I know we do,” Vitez said.

But all Vitez could do beyond that was run his hands through his hair, temporarily at a loss as to exactly what to do next.

On the afternoon of December 1, the New York Times published an online story, featuring quotes attributed to Wall Street analysts from the technology and retail sectors, estimating that damage to home computers and lost online retail sales from the coordinated and ongoing cyber attack could potentially exceed $1 billion.

Black Monday and Beyond

In the aftermath of what history and newspaper editors and writers would record as “Black Monday,” Vitez and the rest of the Va-Voom! team tried to take stock of their losses and rally themselves into a recovery. They had a very hard and very expensive road ahead of them.

Scenario_MidnightBlitz

Paul Vitez had used the millions accorded to him to create Va-Voom’s “prison, not a castle” approach to cyber defense and he had employed that money in an admirable and innovative fashion.

But it was in a meeting with chief risk officer Steve Francis, CFO Marabel Kelly and Va-Voom!’s technology and general liability broker Brandon Fikes that Paul Vitez came to a better, albeit painful understanding about the best allocation of capital in the quest to manage risk.

The most immediate pain that Va-Voom! was feeling were notices from five attorneys general that investigations into the Black Monday breach were underway.

‘Well, the good news is that your regulatory defense is covered, as is your first party business interruption,” Fikes said.

“Great,” Vitez said. “What else?”

Steve Francis glanced at Vitez out of one corner of his eye. He felt the pain of the losses to the company as badly as anyone, but he couldn’t help but take a bit of perverse pleasure in the discomfort of Vitez, whose arrogance, in Francis’ estimation, was going to have significant consequences, consequences that could be measured in millions of dollars.

“The rest is somewhat of a mixed bag, unfortunately,” Fikes said.

“Go on,” said Vitez who shot Francis a quick sharp look, causing Francis to turn away quickly, lest his inner thoughts become outwardly visible.

“You had some third party liability coverage, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough to cover the losses of your business partners, not to mention the shoppers whose personal computers were damaged by this event,” Fikes said.

“How much …” Vitez managed to get out before Steve Francis stepped in.

“We could have multiples of millions in exposure here, Paul,” Francis said.

Vitez shot Francis another look but Francis diplomatically kept his mouth shut.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to get to the bottom of where this attack came from and who launched it,” said the CFO, Marabel Kelly.

“What’s your advice, Brandon, about spending money on forensics?” she asked.

“I think you spend it for a couple of reasons,” Fikes said.

“One, the cost is covered by insurance. But that’s not the best reason. The best reason is that you can use forensics to learn from the event and hopefully prevent anything else as bad as this going forward,” he said.

“All right,” Kelly said. “What else?”

“There’s reputation,” Steve Francis offered.

“Some say you can put a price on it, some say you can’t,” said Fikes.

“But one thing is for sure,” he said. “You had no coverage in place for that in any event.”

There was a pause, as the significance of that statement sunk in. In the extended, painfully awkward silence, Marabel Kelly shuffled the paperwork in front of her and shifted in her seat, visibly perturbed.

Within two weeks of that difficult conversation, the pain intensified for Paul Vitez and Va-Voom! Class action lawsuits were filed on behalf of the millions of home-computer owners who alleged pain and suffering in connection with the hassle of credit card replacement and property loss from their now-useless computers.

The 10 retailers affected, now known colloquially and to their ongoing irritation as the Black Monday Ten, also filed suit.

With Va-Voom!’s uninsured losses building from the millions to the tens of millions, Paul Vitez, once a magazine cover boy, resigned his position.

Bar-Lessons-Learned---Partner's-Content-V1b

Risk & Insurance® partnered with XL Group to produce this scenario. Below are XL Group’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. These “Lessons Learned” are not the editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance®.

1. Have a crisis management response plan in place – The consequences of a cyber-attack are too expensive and too damaging for companies not to have a clear idea how they are going to respond in the event their services, or the services of their business partners are interrupted.

2. Understand your risk profile – Different companies have different cyber-risk profiles depending on their industry. Understanding your cyber-risk profile and working in conjunction with an agent and underwriter to map out the best coverage is a crucial step in avoiding being underinsured or paying too much for coverage you don’t need.

3. You are next – The realm of cyber-security and cyber-attacks is one area where an “it can’t happen here” mentality could be catastrophic. The chilling fact of the matter is that the most well-financed companies with the most sophisticated cyber defenses are vulnerable.

4. Get help – Whether it be through your insurance coverage or some other funding mechanism, find and connect with the consultants you need to help you understand the threat and how you can protect yourself. This risk environment is changing day by day and no one can afford to be content with the status quo.

5. Enforce your IT policies – Having sensible IT policies in place to minimize the potential for an attack is not enough. Companies must be proactive in seeing that employees take seriously company rules and standards on data encryption, and the use of personal devices in the workplace or in connection with company networks.

Additional Partner Resources

XL Group Cyber Product Sheet

John Coletti, Underwriting Manager of Cyber Liability, discusses cyber coverage options.




Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

Advertisement




Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

Advertisement




We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

Advertisement




Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

Advertisement




Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

Advertisement




More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]