Northwestel was not hacked.
Instead, there’s an error in the way Northwestel’s systems are reporting how much data some cable modem customers used, resulting in over-billing.
But it’s a pretty big error. One customer, whose data I examined, was over-billed by almost $700.
Based on my research and analysis, the error seems to have been introduced into the system in late July and would have affected July and August bills.
Northwestel is currently working to correct the error and identify affected accounts. Those accounts will be automatically be credited back the over-billing.
Where did the idea of hacking come from? Miscommunication.
One person I spoke to was lead to believe by a Northwestel customer service agent that his modem had been hacked and that it was a widespread issue. This was probably before even the customer service staff were fully informed of what the issue was.
When I called a little while ago, they were saying very little other than to acknowledge the issue and flag your account.
I’d also summarize it as a lack of communication, something I’ve criticized Northwestel for many times in the past. A lot of this matter could have been cleared up with something as simple as a blog post on their website, accompanied by a tweet and a Facebook post, immediately after they’d learned about the issue. Instead, the company chose to keep customers in the dark, upset with these huge over-billings.
It’s unclear when accounts will receive credits, or what the implications will be in the interim for customers who don’t pay what are likely over-billing charges. I can’t imagine that $700 will get paid, for example.
In the meantime, here’s my advice: monitor your account.
First, check if you’ve received any overage billing (it’s called “Extra Usage” on your bill). If you have, and you don’t normally, call Northwestel and ask about it.
You can always check your usage online at Northwestel’s website (Check Your Internet Usage) using the MAC address that’s on the back of your modem. Right now, the data’s still wonky since the error is still in place, but it’s useful for future reference.
While you’re checking your internet usage online, you can also subscribe to Northwestel’s alert service. It’ll send you an email when you reach the 80% and 100% thresholds for data use on your account.
Apologies if I frightened anyone with the “hacking” spectre earlier today. But truth be told, cable modem hacking is relatively simple to do (it’s very well documented at many sources online) and, when done right, nearly undetectable, and the symptoms of the situation fit perfectly. So the idea that one or more cable nodes in Whitehorse had been expropriated by a third party was not at all far-fetched. It’s a very real risk.