Last week, Marriott let the public know that it had suffered a data breach: Hackers stole the data on 500 million guest reservations from the hotel chain’s Starwood database.
As part of its outreach regarding this breach, Marriott sent out millions of emails to customers, warning them about the possible compromise of their information.
However, it sent these messages from a domain not obviously associated with the hotel chain, according to TechCrunch. Instead of using its well-known and trusted domain, marriott.com, the chain sent its communications from email-marriott.com. TechCrunch reports that domain is registered by a third-party service provider on behalf of Marriott.
In fact, email-marriott.com is a domain the hotel chain regularly uses to send ordinary communications with customers (such a reminder that they can check in online). So it’s to Marriott’s credit that it is using an existing domain and didn’t create a new one just for this crisis. Still, recipients of this email won’t necessarily know that it’s the normal domain used by Marriott.
“We want you to be confident that the email notification you may receive is from Marriott. The email will come from the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. ... Please note that the email you may receive from us will not contain any attachments or request any information from you, and any links will only bring you back to this webpage.”
Unfortunately, while the hotel chain means well and is communicating lots of information to customers, Marriott's spoofable email and this fishy-looking domain may put even more customers at risk.
Marriott Spoofing Ahead?
There are a few risks involved in this post-breach communications strategy.
- The domain that Marriott is using are using (email-marriott.com) has published a DMARC record, but it is not at enforcement. Phishers could use that exact domain in the From: field when sending their messages. Spoofed messages from email-marriott.com will be delivered just the same as legitimate ones.
- The company’s main domain, marriott.com, is also unprotected by DMARC, so that, too, is vulnerable to spoofing.
- It's hard to spell "Marriott" correctly, so lookalike domains provide another easy way to fool people (email-mariott.com, email-marriot.com).
- There's no website associated with email-marriott.com, so it's hard for people to know if it's a legitimate domain or not. You can use a whois lookup online (or open up a Terminal window in OS X and just type “whois email-marriott.com”) to verify that it's owned by Marriott. But most people won't know how to do that.
- Even if there was a website at that URL, it still wouldn't be proof that Marriott actually owned it. Phishers use spoofed websites (complete with the HTTPS browser "padlock") all the time, as Brian Krebs reported last month.
- Phishers frequently take advantage of news like this to send out fake breach notifications. We saw similar waves of phish in the wake of the 2013 Target breach and the 2017 Equifax breach, among others.
A Common Problem
Much like Equifax in 2017, the hotel chain, unfortunately, is not using effective email authentication to help ensure that its messages are validated. As a result, its own messages may not stand out among the likely flood of phish.
It’s a common problem — and it’s relatively easy to address. But all too often the crisis communications teams that are brought in to handle things in the wake of cyberattacks are focused on other priorities.
The better alternative: Set up authentication on your primary, most-trusted domains before a crisis happens. Lock down the domains you don’t use for email too, to prevent phishers from spoofing those. And have a plan in place so that when a crisis happens, you’re ready to get the word out via a trusted email channel, not a fishy-looking one.