1,800 University of California – Davis Medical Center patients notified of breach after 3 clinicians fall for phishing scheme

The University of California Davis Medical Center has sent out notification letters to patients affected by a breach that occurred in December.

In a letter dated January 30, Shara Merritt Reed, Privacy Program Director for the UC Davis Health System, writes that UCDHS recently learned that a medical provider’s email account was compromised by a phishing scam.

UCDHS was unable to determine if there was access to emails that may have contained patient medical information, but emails in the provider’s account contained patients’ names, medical record numbers and the dates of clinic visits. No financial information or Social Security numbers were in the emails.

UCDHS’s email system is encrypted, and the letter indicates that there were several measures in place to prevent this type of breach from having occurred – including staff training, email filtering, and “cyber surveillance.” Despite their precautions, the breach occurred.

Upon discovering the breach on December 13, UCDHS took immediate actions to protect patient privacy, including deleting the phishing email from other staff members’ accounts, blocking access to the phishing website, and actively warning staff about the threat. From metadata attached to their notification to the California Attorney General’s Office, it appears they detected the breach the day it occurred.

Patients were told that if they have any questions about the incident, they could contact UCDHS’s Compliance Department via a telephone number and email address provided in the letter.

A statement posted on UCDMC’s webiste on January 27  provides additional details, including the number of patients involved, the number of providers who fell for the phishing scheme, and how UCDHS discovered the breach:

UC Davis Health System is in the process of notifying approximately 1,800 patients that emails containing their personal or medical information may have been compromised by an Internet phishing scam that affected three UC Davis clinicians in mid-December. The breach does not appear to have an identity-theft component, nor does it include access to the electronic health records of patients or their personal financial information.

The phishing scam compromised three physicians’ email accounts, which means that malicious software could potentially provide access to their email, some of which contained patient health information. While data security experts are unable to determine the exact nature of the breach or whether any messages were specifically read, they say that the automated nature of typical phishing scams makes it unlikely that content from individual messages was viewed. The content of patient information in the emails consisted primarily of name, medical record number and limited information associated with a clinic visit or hospital admission. No patient credit card or Social Security numbers were contained in the messages.

The clinicians first noticed the problem when they experienced the deletion of emails from their accounts and found their email was being used to send messages to addresses outside the health system, presumably to obtain personal financial information, passwords and other individual identifiers.

UC Davis Health System’s email program is encrypted, and there are measures in place to prevent intrusions like this one from occurring, including email filtering, cyber surveillance and staff training and education. Immediate actions to protect patient privacy were taken when it was discovered these emails were compromised, including deleting the phishing email from other staff accounts, blocking access to the phishing website, and actively warning UC Davis staff about the scam.

UC Davis Health System has notified, or will be notifying, several government agencies – the California Department of Public Health, California Attorney General’s office and the federal Office of Civil Rights – about the breach.

Patients with questions about the incident may call the health system’s Compliance Department at 916-734-8808 for additional information or advice.


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