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There's a small nonprofit in Muncie, Ind., that helps people fight cancer. But that good work did not prevent them from falling victim to a cyberattack like the one that locked computers around the world last week. The organization was hacked in January. And several months later, it is still recovering. Indiana Public Broadcasting's Annie Ropeik has the story.
ANNIE ROPEIK, BYLINE: Everything was missing - client files, financial data all gone. It didn't make sense to the six-person staff of Cancer Services of East Central Indiana, also known as Little Red Door. And then to add to the confusion, says executive director Aimee Robertson-Fant, the staff started getting these weird text messages.
AIMEE ROBERTSON FANT: Saying that they were going to be our new best friends and that they were going to help us.
ROPEIK: Next came the email, the subject - cancer sucks, but we suck more.
FANT: It was diabolical. It was cruel. They were brutal.
ROPEIK: Hackers had accessed the nonprofit's server after a staffer inadvertently downloaded malware from an email. The hackers wanted 50 bitcoin, or what was then about $43,000 to return the data and to keep it private.
FANT: I hate to use the word traumatic, but it was. I mean, you just don't understand what's happening. You just - you know, it's sort of an out-of-body experience where, you know, like - I - we just couldn't figure out why someone would be doing this to us.
ROPEIK: Fant says the FBI told her they've been investigating this group of hackers - that they probably wanted sensitive information - bank accounts, Social Security numbers. But Little Red Door doesn't keep anything like that on file. So when they decided not to pay the ransom, the hackers posted what they did have.
FANT: It was pretty despicable. We send out grief letters to families, and they did publish some grief letters on Twitter.
ROPEIK: Michael Wolfe is the CTO of a local software firm.
MICHAEL WOLFE: You are only as secure as your weakest link in the chain. So you need to be prepared for what you will do if that happens because the likelihood of that happening is increasing daily.
ROPEIK: Wolfe volunteered to help the nonprofit secure what data they could, but they couldn't recover everything.
FANT: Yeah. So we have, you know, all of our files in here.
ROPEIK: Here meaning a drawer stuffed with manila folders. The staff has spent months painstakingly entering this client information back into their computers. Patient advocate Diana Rinker has led the effort.
DIANA RINKER: I have a month of back data to enter. My goal is to have it done today, and we'll be caught up on this end.
ROPEIK: Rinker was herself diagnosed with cancer just before the hack. She's been on data entry duty between rounds of chemo.
RINKER: It's made it a little stressful, but it's so nice when our clients come in because we've not had one client that hasn't been understanding.
ROPEIK: Little Red Door has struggled since the hack - and with more than just paperwork. Without all their data in hand, they haven't been able to get much of the grant funding that pays their bills. Michael Wolfe, the software company CTO, has this advice for small nonprofits.
WOLFE: Stop. Sit down with your board, and think through some questions about - what is your IT infrastructure? Where do you store data? So I'm sure that there are improvements to be made that could prevent devastation.
ROPEIK: Hackers don't discriminate, he says - no matter how small your business, how noble your nonprofit's mission, you are vulnerable.
For NPR News, I'm Annie Ropeik.
[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Cancer Services of East Central Indiana – Little Red Door is separate from the Little Red Door Cancer Agency in Indianapolis, which was not the target of a cyberattack.]
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