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Tribune workers got an email dangling a bonus — but it was a hoax from their employer

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Tribune Publishing on Wednesday tested its employees' susceptibility to so-called "phishing" scams by sending an email to workers that dangled monetary bonuses of as much as $10,000. The only problem? The bonuses didn't exist, and some employees are now expressing fury at the stunt.

In the corporate world, testing vulnerabilities to phishing scams — when bad actors pretend to be trusted sources to convince their victims to provide sensitive data — isn't unusual. But the offer of a nonexistent cash award struck a sour note with some employees, with one calling for the company to "fire everyone involved."

The Sentinel Guild, a union of employees at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida who are seeking recognition from Tribune, called the ploy "a slap in the face and tone-deaf."  

"After slashing our staff, closing newsrooms, furloughing reporters and cutting pay during a pandemic, [Tribune Publishing] thought a neat 'lil way to test our susceptibility to phishing was to send a spoof email announcing large bonuses," wrote Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton on Twitter.

He added, "Fire everyone involved."

"Misleading and insensitive"

Tribune apologized for the email, saying that "in retrospect, the topic of the email was misleading and insensitive, and the company apologizes for its use," according to a spokesman.

The company, which owns nine newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, said it conducted the test to assess its phishing risk level. 

"Based on input provided by the company's cybersecurity team and advisers, the content of that test included language regarding employee bonuses," the spokesman said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch. "Having fallen victim to attacks of this nature before, the company recognized that bad actors use this type of language regularly, and decided to use the language to simulate common phishing scams."

According to a screenshot posted by a group of employees at the Tribune-owned Morning Call in Pennsylvania, the email informed employees they could receive a bonus of between $5,000 and $10,000. 

"Tribune Publishing is able to provide this bonus as a direct result of the success created by the ongoing efforts to cut our costs!" the email proclaimed. The email then directed recipients to click on a link to register for the bonus.

Tribune Publishing underwent a management shakeup earlier this year, with CEO Timothy Knight stepping down just months after hedge fund Alden Global Capital took a 32% stake in the media company. Knight was succeeded by the company's chief financial officer, Terry Jimenez. Knight and Jimenez earned a base pay of $600,000 and $550,000 respectively in 2019, according to regulatory filings. 

"Given the fact that we lost our newsroom, had three weeks of furloughs this summer and being told we will get NOTHING in reimbursements for working remote, this email teasing about bonuses related to a reduction in costs is utterly offensive,' The Morning Call Guild wrote on Twitter. 

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