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Case studies

Citizens Advice Test Valley and HBTech: a partnership for cyber-resilience 

Citizens Advice Test Valley and HBTech: a partnership for cyber-resilience 

About Citizens Advice Test Valley

Citizens Advice Test Valley is a charity formed in 2014 following the merger of Andover Citizens Advice Bureau and Romsey Citizens Advice Bureau. Every year they help thousands of people with a range of problems including issues with housing, debt, benefits, employment, relationships and consumer rights. They provide a vital service to people in Romsey, Andover, Stockbridge and the surrounding areas. Most of their personnel are volunteers.  

Ange Moon is the Chief Officer and she has dedicated 25 years of her life to serving the community through her work at Citizens Advice. She describes it as “a fantastic service that gets in your blood”.

The ransomware attack that locked them out of key systems 

With two office locations and a mixture of full-time and part-time staff, Citizens Advice Test Valley depends on a functioning IT system. The charity is very busy, with thousands of people relying on them for vital help. Their IT is critical to the service they provide. 

In January 2018, their systems were brought down by a ransomware attack.  

That day is etched on Ange Moon’s memory.  

“Obviously we didn’t pay the ransom, but it meant that we pretty much lost access to everything. It’s then that you realise how much you rely on your systems to work for you.”  

Fortunately, client data was stored on a separate secure system that was not compromised, but the attack still had a devastating effect. 

“We lost all of our emails, my work is basically email related all the time… We assumed, wrongly, that we were being backed up every night, but we weren’t.” 

Suddenly locked out of key applications, they began the painstaking process of trying to piece things back together, all the while continuing to provide their much-needed service to the local community.  

“We had the police involved because I reported it, as we should. Citizens Advice head office were involved and they came down the next day. Pretty much everybody dropped everything to help us out, which was brilliant, but it was incredibly stressful.” 

Initially, Citizens Advice Test Valley utilised internal staff and resources in their efforts to recover from the attack, but progress was slow. 

“We worked for about 3 weeks and we weren’t really going anywhere. We were struggling to provide a service on very limited IT equipment. It was business-critical that we got everything up and running as quickly as possible. We still had clients coming through the door that wanted help, so the pressure was on.” 

Professional support in an emergency 

Ange Moon had previously met John Clough, the Commercial Director of HBTech, “they were always in the background as a go-to organisation should anything happen.” 

With the agreement of the charity’s trustees, she brought HBTech in to help.  

“HBTech came to my rescue. John and his team literally dropped everything and came down. We had two of their guys working with us the very next day and we were back on email within about 3 hours.” 

HBTech installed a new server for Citizens Advice Test Valley’s documents and moved their email to a cloud-based service. They switched on Two Factor Authentication to provide an additional layer of protection against phishing and hacking. 

“They spent about six days with us, coming in every day and going through each of the computers, getting them re-established and back onto the system.” 

HBTech conducted a review of their IT security and, as a result, implemented: 

a) a managed backup service with offsite backup, to reduce the impact of any future ransomware. This allows data to be recovered and the server to be rebuilt from saved files backed up at a time before a critical event (e.g. a ransomware attack); 

b) a managed antivirus service to reduce the risk of a virus or malware; and 

c) firewalls on both sites to protect the server and users from external threats. 

“Once I was in HBTech’s hands, I just felt I could cope with it better. I had reassurance that everything was going as it should do.” 

An investment in the future 

The upgrades to their systems and their IT security put Citizens Advice Test Valley in a much better position, and they have not been attacked since. 

“Since then we’ve stayed with HBTech. They’ve just been fantastic! They’ve got us all into a much more secure place.” 

Citizens Advice Test Valley relies on fundraising, donations and grants, so they take decisions on expenditure seriously. 

“It is an investment, you have to pay the money to get the cover that you need. But it’s so critical to our service that it should be one of your biggest expenditures in your budget really… You need to invest time and money into it. You need to make sure that you’ve got a reputable support company looking after you and ensure you’ve got your firewalls in place and your backups in place.” 

Without backups, it took time to recreate some of the documents that had been lost. Ange Moon explained the impact of the ransomware attack, “just their small action had a massive effect on us. It took at least six months to kind of get back to where we were before, but still I look for documents sometimes and I think – it’s before 2018, that’s not going to get found again… Luckily I’m a kind of print everything out anyway person. So a lot of it was retyped to have an electronic copy. The volunteers worked really hard to get us back to where we are and I think now we’re in such a different place. 2018 doesn’t seem that long ago but things have moved on a lot in that time. HBTech have always kept us as up to date as possible. This year we moved to cloud-based Microsoft – it’s saved money and it’s a safer way of working.” 

Staff awareness is a key factor in avoiding cyber-attacks, and Citizens Advice Test Valley are making sure that their employees and volunteers are alert to the risks.  

“A lot of it is down to staff training as well. HBTech run tests for us – they send out a test email to see how many of the volunteers open up the attachment. They shouldn’t open it up unless they know it’s from a reputable source, it could be a scam or a phishing email. So a lot of it is about training as well and making sure that your staff understand the risks involved.” 

Looking ahead, Ange Moon is keen to achieve the Cyber Essentials Certification with HBTechs help, “Once you’ve got the Cyber Essentials qualification, it passports you. So it makes it so much safer and easier and also it allows you to put that on your insurance.” 

With improved cyber security, Citizens Advice Test Valley has avoided further attacks, and Ange Moon feels reassured knowing that she has professional IT help. 

“John checks in with me quite regularly to see how things are and see if I need anything, so you don’t always feel like you’re floundering on your own. If you’re not sure, it doesn’t matter how simple the question is, you can just ask the question, with no judgment from them. We have a good working relationship, which is quite a key thing, and I know I can completely trust in them… They’re almost part of the team.” 

Ange Moon – Chief Officer – Citizens Advice Test Valley.

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