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Internet-based attacks hit emergency call centers. What's the damage?

The emergency call centers are administrative ones where 911 calls are routed after having been received. The attacks are part of an extortion scheme, federal authorities say.

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Hundreds of emergency call centers nationwide have been hit with Internet-based phone-blocking attacks, part of a criminal extortion scheme that aims to clog the centers used to dispatch emergency services, according to federal law-enforcement authorities and cyber experts.

Since January, more than 200 public-safety answering points (PSAPs) – administrative call centers where 911 calls are routed after having been received – have been bombarded with “telephony denial of service” (TDoS) attacks that last several hours, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Emergency Management and Response – Information Sharing and Analysis Center (EMR-ISAC).

So far, the 911 lines that directly receive emergency calls have not been hit. Instead, the attacks have prevented incoming and outgoing calls from reaching the PSAP centers, which dispatch emergency services.

“Information received from multiple jurisdictions indicates the possibility of attacks targeting the telephone systems of public sector entities,” according to a confidential alert jointly issued by DHS and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in mid-March. “Dozens of such attacks have targeted the administrative PSAP lines (not the 911 emergency line). The perpetrators of the attack have launched high volume of calls against the target network, tying up the system from receiving legitimate calls.”

The DHS-FBI alert appeared Monday on the website of cybersecurity blogger Brian Krebs. But a March 23 “InfoGram” from the EMR-ISAC said the attacks had grown, hitting “over 200 Public Safety Answering Points ... around the country.”

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