Searching for smart, safe news you can TRUST?

Support safe, smart, REAL journalism. Sign up for our Axios AM & PM newsletters and get smarter, faster.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Searching for smart, safe news you can TRUST?

Support safe, smart, REAL journalism. Sign up for our Axios AM & PM newsletters and get smarter, faster.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Denver news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Des Moines news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Minneapolis-St. Paul news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Minneapolis-St. Paul

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tampa-St. Petersburg news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa-St. Petersburg

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

In a previously unreported event demonstrating both the risks all organizations face from threats to the telephone system and how to mitigate them, an Arabic-speaking phone scammer tied up the nonemergency police call centers in Maryland's Howard County with a flood of calls over two days in August, briefly disrupting services.

Why it matters: The scam was against the phone company, not against Howard County, a target picked at random. So while the county didn't lose money, it briefly lost use of its nonemergency call center.

Background: Howard County normally gets between 300 and 400 calls a day to the nonemergency number. That's where citizens might be routed "if there's a cat stuck in a tree, but the cat's not on fire," said James Cox, the county's network-server team manager.

  • Suddenly, in August, the call center started receiving 2,500 direct calls a day. That call volume made it impossible for legitimate callers to reach the system.
  • "We got to the point we had to actually turn off the numbers," Cox said.

Howard County was fortunate. It had a relationship in place with a security group that could help mitigate and investigate the attack, in this case, Cisco.

  • Cisco recommended a telephone firewall provider to thwart the attack, and Cisco's Talos research group, in conjunction with the police, determined that the caller was taking advantage of a loophole in the international phone system.
  • When calls transfer from one network to another, the connecting network exacts a fee. In this case, the caller and the phone network had a kickback agreement to share that fee while placing as many calls as possible. The caller made pennies on the dollar in the scam, between $2,000 and $3,000 total.
  • While the calls appeared to be from the U.S., they were actually being routed through Europe.
  • Talos was able to help in the investigation by piecing together evidence the police had already collected and providing additional services, including an Arabic linguist, according to Matt Olney, Talos threat detection and interdiction manager.

The intrigue: Cox will publicly discuss the event for the first time at the upcoming Talos Threat Research Summit on June 9. He says there are a few important lessons.

  • Don't expect help from the phone company or social media networks to research an attack without a warrant. That makes mitigating the attack without a security expert near impossible — you need to know what an attacker is trying to do to prevent it.
  • Have a plan in place before the attack happens. Know at what call volume you can afford to expand operations to handle on the fly — or if you can live without phones for the duration of an attack.

Go deeper: A look inside a Nigerian email scam group active since 2008

Go deeper

36 mins ago - Health

U.S. tops 88,000 COVID-19 cases, setting new single-day record

Expand chart
Data: COVID Tracking Project; Chart: Axios Visuals

The United States reported 88,452 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, setting a single-day record, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.

The big picture: The country confirmed 1,049 additional deaths due to the virus, and there are over 46,000 people currently being hospitalized, suggesting the U.S. is experiencing a third wave heading into the winter months.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Large coronavirus outbreaks leading to high death rates — Coronavirus cases are at an all-time high ahead of Election Day.
  2. Politics: Top HHS spokesperson pitched coronavirus ad campaign as "helping the president" — Space Force's No. 2 general tests positive for coronavirus.
  3. World: Taiwan reaches a record 200 days with no local coronavirus cases.
  4. Sports: MLB to investigate Dodgers player who joined celebration after positive COVID test.
  5. 🎧Podcast: The vaccine race turns toward nationalism.

The norms around science and politics are cracking

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Crafting successful public health measures depends on the ability of top scientists to gather data and report their findings unrestricted to policymakers.

State of play: But concern has spiked among health experts and physicians over what they see as an assault on key science protections, particularly during a raging pandemic. And a move last week by President Trump, via an executive order, is triggering even more worries.