Security vulnerabilities persist in hospitality industry

When checking into a hotel and asked for a credit card for incidentals, or when pre-paying online, do you honestly give it a second thought considering most hotels are big chains and well established? If you're among the majority of consumers, then no, you do not. However, recent breaches and a new study from Trustwave might make you pause in the future.

Earlier this week, Trustwave, a PCI vendor and Qualified Incident Response Assessor, issued an advisory on the results of 75 investigations for credit card compromise. The advisory, while lacking the names of clients who were investigated at their own request, highlighted some interesting observations. Presently, Trustwave’s data shows over one million accounts at risk.

In the majority of investigations, the data held on the magnetic stripe was a complete loss, thanks to antiquated processing systems and technologies used. Since the out-dated processing applications store the card’s data completely, all an attacker needs to do is compromise the system or network and download the stored files. In addition, other similarities in the investigations, such as weak passwords or default passwords, insecure remote access, and improper firewall configurations, each led to a compromise at the hotel.

A spokesperson for the company told The Tech Herald that in each of the 75 confirmed breaches, there were two main methods for extracting data, which none of the businesses were able to prevent at the time of compromise. The first is, again, out-dated processing applications. The fact they are so old means they're out of compliance with PCI, which is a regulation all hotels, motels, and hospitality operations are required to comply with. These applications simply store the data on the system. Once that system is compromised, the data is there for the taking.

The second is custom Malware. This Malware parses magnetic stripe data from volatile memory. Residing within the memory of the infected system, as it's used to record payment transactions, the Malware copies the information and offloads it to any number of destinations. Criminals often create databanks of captured information where they can access it at will. Trustwave said that, in many cases, systems deemed compliant with PCI at one time can fall victim to this type of attack because of issues created during configuration that allowed the Malware to infect the system.

Weak communications, when dealing with remote processing centers for credit card application or remote properties (as in the case of a hotel chain), as well as internal communications, is another avenue of compromise. While Trustwave did not break down how many of the 75 clients were breached by this method, some were, and it is a known risk. Earlier this year, Visa issued an alert that warns of Malware attacks on card data in transit. 

Since most hotels have a centralized processing application for credit or debit card purchases, customers in the restaurant, gift shop or spa all face the same risk as those who used a card to simply pay for their room.

The fact that most hotel chains are connected via a larger network means that if one site is compromised, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume the other sites are compromised as well. The truth is, in cases like this, if one site is compromised then you can be sure the others are too -- a point proven in the case of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts.

Earlier this year, Wyndham reported that sometime last July, criminals breached the network of a franchised Wyndham property and, because the franchise was linked to a central network, the criminals had access to 41 other properties and their systems.

According to reports at the time, the true scope of the damage was unknown, the hotel never revealed how many accounts were exposed, only Florida listed a figure. In a statement around the time of the disclosure, the Florida Attorney General said that almost 21,000 residents could have been affected by the Wyndham breach.

As a consumer, should you worry? No. Several regulations will prevent you from being liable for fraudulent charges by someone who stole your credit card. There are also stringent protections to help curb some of the pain of identity theft. The problem with most of these identity theft protections is that they still require a lot of hoop jumping.

So what can the hospitality industry do to prevent breaches? According to Trustwave, following the best practices is a start. For example, enforcing stronger passwords, proper egress filtering for the firewalls, and remote access enforcement, are just some of the things listed in its report.

While PCI is not 'end-all-be-all' security, it is the first step. Checklist security is only effective if followed completely, and added to by knowing your business and knowing what risks you face. Reliance on checklists alone will do you no good, as proven by the countless breaches that have occurred at PCI-certified businesses. Each business compromised, sticking only with the reported breaches from 2008 and 2009, was compliant at one point in time. However, what happens between the time of certification and the annual audit is what matters.

The Tech Herald: Best Western Hotels targeted in recent heist (Update) 


Want regular updates from The Tech Herald? Follow us on Twitter.

Interested in a more interactive TTH? Join our Facebook Group.

Like this article? Please share on Facebook and give The Tech Herald a Like too!