US telemarketing agency forced to fire 300 workers following ransomware attack

The Heritage Company, a telemarketing agency based in Sherwood, Arkansas, has been forced to suspend operations and fire over 300 employees after it failed to recover fully from a ransomware attack that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom payments and IT costs.

While The Heritage Company did not reveal when the ransomware attack took place, how much ransom was demanded by cyber criminals, whether criminals behind the operation were identified, or exactly how much the agency had to spend in terms of IT costs to recover from the damage caused, its CEO wrote a heartfelt letter to affected employees, stating that she was forced to suspend operations after incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses.

The telemarketing agency was in the business of raising funds for major U.S. based charities through the use of digital voice mail campaigns, telemarketing campaigns, and direct mail to prospective donors. The agency has been operating since 1958 and was founded by the agency's CEO's mother.

Sandra Franecke, the owner and CEO of the telemarketing agency, recently announced the suspension of operations at her agency in an email addressed to hundreds of employees, stating that the agency had become financially unviable after a ransomware attack inflicted loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the agency.

Telemarketing agency could not recover from the ransomware attack despite its best efforts

She said that she took the decision with a heavy heart as she and the agency's IT team worked very hard to completely restore computer systems that were affected by the ransomware attack and she even paid out employees' salaries from her own savings to keep the business afloat for as long as possible. Alas, they failed.

Here's the full letter that Franecke wrote to affected employees at The Heritage Company:

"Dear Employees of The Heritage Company,

I know that you are all angry, confused, and hurt by the recent turn of events. Please know that I am just as devastated as you all are, especially that we had to do this at this particular time of year.

Please know that we would have NEVER gone to this extreme if we were not forced to. Now is the time to be honest and open about what is REALLY happening so that all of you know the truth, directly from me, especially since some of you have incorrect information and the spreading of untruths through social media is damaging us further.

Unfortunately, approximately two months ago our Heritage servers were attacked by malicious software that basically “held us hostage for ransom” and we were forced to pay the crooks to get the “key” just to get our systems back up and running. Since then, IT has been doing everything they can to bring all our systems back up, but they still have quite a long way to go. Also, since then, I have been doing my utmost best to keep our doors open, even going as far as paying your wages from my own money to keep us going until we could recoup what we lost due to the cyber attack.

I know how confusing this must be, especially after we just gave away 7 cruises just this week, but again, that was money that I spent out of my own personal money to give you the best Christmas gift I possibly could, but that was before our systems were hacked. Afterwards I didn't want to disappoint everyone by taking them back. We started the Prizes and Bingo the first of November when again I was being told the systems would be fixed that week.

What we hope is just a temporary setback is an opportunity for IT to continue their work to bring our systems back and for leadership to restructure different areas in the company in an attempt to recoup our losses which have been hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It is extremely important right now that we all keep the faith and hope alive that The Heritage Company can and will come back from this setback. It is also important that we all keep to the facts and keep calm. And so, I ask that you please share this with the employees who may not be on this page or may not have Facebook. To share this out of the group, you will need to copy the text of this post and share it as your own status.

Please know that when I made my speech at the “Future is Bright” luncheons, everything was sincere and heartfelt. We had no way of predicting that our systems would be hacked at that time. Once we were hit with this terrible virus we were told time and time again that things would be better each week, and then the next week, and the week after that. Accounting was down and we had no way of processing funds. The mail center was down as we had no way of sending statements out, which meant that no funds could come in.

Had we known at the time that this would have hurt the company this badly, we would have made a statement to the employees long ago to warn everyone what this might mean. The ONLY option we had at this time was to close the doors completely or suspend our services until we can regroup and reorganize and get our systems running again. Of course, we chose to suspend operations as Heritage is a company that doesn't like to give up.

I also want to apologize for the way many of you found out we were closing our doors. When we left the meeting yesterday afternoon, everyone had a plan for what was to happen, but we never considered that the word would spread so fast and far to each of you before your managers could speak to the employees who had already gone home for the day. No one is sorrier than I about you finding out from other sources who did not necessarily have the correct information.

So here it is: The Heritage Company is temporarily suspending our services. On January 2nd, there will be a message left on the weather line. That message will give you updated information on the restructuring of the company and whether or not we’ve made progress on our system.

In the meantime, I urge each and every one of you to please keep faith with us. We know how extremely hard you all work for each of the wonderful charities we all represent. We want you all back where you belong in two weeks’ time. We are a family, and my hope is that we will stay a family for a long time, despite this setback.

My mother started this company 61 years ago, and I am committed to keeping Heritage open if it is in my power to do so.

Sincerely,

Sandra Franecke,
Owner and CEO,
The Heritage Company"

This isn't the first time that organisations have been forced to suspend operations or go completely defunct following a successful ransomware attack. In July, premier forensic testing provider Eurofins Scientific lost control over a large number of IT systems that were located in several countries and were hijacked by cyber criminals.

Several news reports claimed that Eurofins regained access to its IT systems after deciding to pay an undisclosed ransom amount to hackers. According to BBC, the ransom amount could have been paid any time between June 10th and June 24th when the company regained access to most of its IT systems except for a few back offices and software development systems.

In June, Belgian aircraft equipment manufacturer ASCO was forced to shut operations in Belgium, Germany, Canada, and the US after a ransomware attack crippled IT systems at its manufacturing plant in Zaventem, Belgium. The aircraft equipment manufacturer also sent around 1,000 of its 1,400 employees at the said factories home due to the prolonged shutdown.

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