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Now that AA meetings have to be held digitally, people are breaking in and harassing recovering alcoholics

Working at home without losing your mind
Working at home without losing your mind 07:08

The coronavirus pandemic has completely altered life for most Americans and everything from college lectures to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings have been moved to video conferencing platforms like Zoom. While Zoom lets people communicate face-to-face without worrying about exposure to the coronavirus, users may have something else to worry about: "Zoom-bombing." 

Several Zoom users have reported uninvited attendees have hacked into their meetings – including confidential and sensitive AA meetings.

When a local AA group from St. Paul, Minnesota decided to hold its regular Saturday morning meeting on Zoom, members were subjected to pornography and racial slurs from an unknown attendee. 

"How do you have an anonymous meeting with a bunch of people you don't have last names for?" a meeting member named Steve told CBS News. "We were trying to figure that out. We published the Zoom ID through email and on a website and one of the people that wanted to attend didn't know about the password and it was tweeted [to them.]"

Zoom has been used by millions working and studying from home during the coronavirus outbreak. OLIVIER DOULIERY

That is apparently how the "hacker" was able to enter the meeting, Steve said.

Once inside the Zoom meeting, Steve recognized most attendees – but suddenly someone hit the "present mode" button to share their screen and took over the meeting. "[They] start popping in pictures of pornography," Steve said. The group kicked the person out, but once they had the ID, they were able to rejoin the meeting, again and again.

"A bunch of people were like, 'How did you even find this?' And the response was a racial epithet and, 'You published it on Twitter,'" Steve said.

"Once we got together in a different meeting and got this going, one of the members of our group...was like 'You know, AA has always been safe for me before. There's all sorts of places in my life that haven't been safe. And now, suddenly someone broke in and tried to make that not safe for me,'" Steve said. 

Steve said AA is about helping each other – and that's what the group did. "The fact that one of my fellows got to express how scared and hurt she was by that, instead of just going off by herself and not being able to talk about it with somebody else, was the really positive side of this story. People didn't give up," he said. 

In New York, members of a Zoom AA meeting described a similarly disturbing scene. Members of the New York Inter-Group Association spoke to Business Insider about a recent hacking. One person said the hacker taunted them, saying "Alcohol is soooo good."

Now, when visitors go to the New York Inter-Group Association website, a popup about dealing with unwanted meeting guests is the first thing they see. The group suggests muting all guests and disabling self-unmuting, then disabling the abuser's video and removing them from the meeting. 

These aren't the only Zoom meetings being disrupted – and it's happening worldwide. A meeting at a synagogue in London was subjected to what one attendee called "vile abuse."

"There were about 205 of us logged on – including lots of families with little kids – and suddenly the numbers went up to 243," the attendee, who is a BBC employee, told BBC News. Details of the meeting had been published on the synagogue's website, and one uninvited person started saying anti-Semitic things. 

"It was terrifying at what is a really terrifying time anyway," the BBC employee said. "The rabbi didn't realize what was going on until one of the congregants texted him. By then lots of people had taken their children offline," the BBC employee said.

Another woman in the U.K. said her mother's AA Zoom meeting was recently hacked. She tweeted that the hackers said they were from America and told meeting attendees "to drink and that they hate Brits."

"When a seemingly safe space, for those that really need it gets hacked. What are @zoom_us doing about this?" her tweet continued.

Zoom has addressed its platform's vulnerability in the past. Last year, the company experienced both a webcam hacking scandal, and a bug that allowed snooping users to potentially join video meetings they hadn't been invited to, CNET reports. 

This month, both the FBI the Electronic Frontier Foundation cautioned users about the software's privacy. The FBI said it had received "multiple reports of conferences being disrupted by pornographic and/or hate images and threatening language." 

At least two schools in Massachusetts reported Zoom-bombing incidents – one in which an uninvited individual yelled profanities and shouted the teacher's home address, and another in which the individual displayed swastika tattoos on the screen.

The FBI listed several recommendations for making Zoom meetings more secure, such as: Do not make meetings or classrooms public and do not share a link to a teleconference or classroom publicly. 

Another tip shared both by the FBI and Zoom is to control screen-sharing to "host only." 

While it is believed that in some cases hackers got access to Zoom meeting IDs and passwords, other hackers may be using more intricate methods. Two security researchers recently found a Zoom bug that can be abused to steal Windows passwords, according to TechCrunch. 

Two new bugs that can be used on Zoom users' Mac computers to tap into the webcam and microphone were also recently discovered, TechCrunch reports. 

CBS News has reached out to Zoom and is awaiting response. Zoom users can submit feedback to the company about hacking or other issues.

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