Oct 162014

For roughly 30 hours until yesterday afternoon, Silenced was down.

As many visitors may already know, the site was throwing a 509 Bandwidth Limit Exceeded error. Since then, our host has restored service and our bandwidth cap has been altered.

We are still investigating the possible cause of this outage, but considering what we know, it looks like a cyber-attack of some sort, likely something in the form of a Direct Denial-of-Service attack. At the same time, other Silenced resources were also compromised.

Here are the facts:

  • Across this site’s 3+ year history, we have been on the same server, receiving about the same traffic numbers consistently for most of this blog’s existence. Yet, we have never received that error before, nor have experienced another period of significant downtime.
  • Stranger still is that this site has 1TB of monthly bandwidth, which is a limit a niche, mostly-text blog like this should struggle to reach in a matter of years much less midway through October.
  • Our website control panels are still down and service to them has yet to be restored. Their crash appears to be unrelated to the bandwidth usage spike. A normal bandwidth tap-out shouldn’t include the crashing of our back-end administrative tools.
  • About a third of the way through the outage, we received alerts from Google that the Gmail account associated with this website may have been compromised and we had to jump through a bunch of security hoops and reset the password in order to regain access.

In short, our site was knocked offline due to implausibly high traffic numbers, our back-end resources crashed and someone tried to break into our email at the same time.

DDoS attacks can be difficult to prove and tracing them to their source is even more difficult, since the point is to have several different systems flooding a website with artificial traffic. Plus, the most effective ones make use of botnets, and those are in control of a small number of elite hackers and groups. Without being able to look at statistics for our IP and domain, analyzing the spike in traffic isn’t possible for us at this time.

The first thought someone might have is that some COG-related force is behind this. While that could be the case, the hypothesis does strain credulity.

It is very true that the COG hates dissent, despises the free flow of information both online and IRL, has a long history of censoring web comments, banning people and suspending members for saying the wrong things on the Internet.

So while COG leaders certainly have the will to carry out such a cyber attack, they definitely lack the know-how. Even UCG, which is the most digitally savvy of the COG cults, is a monumental failure when it comes to the web. RCG, which purchases tech resources to plant malware and tracking cookies, would likely not have the money to buy the services of someone controlling a botnet.

Occam’s Razor and the Sherlock Principle dictate that the simplest explanations is the best.  Unfortunately, there are several simple explanations:

  • This is a website critical of corrupt organizations that would rather not be criticized, so the natural source of such an attack would be the COG.
  • Alternatively, something messed up horribly on our webhost’s end, which hasn’t been admitted to us yet.
  • The attack was randomly carried out by hackers for fun or as part of a larger campaign against several websites.
  • The email hacking attempt was made by opportunists who saw the site was down and the outage and security compromise were carried out separately.
  • We were shared on reddit, the world’s friendliest DDoS. However, we have yet to find evidence of this.

Anyway, that’s all we really know at this point. If we find out more, we’ll share what we learn. This was the first ever major outage we’ve ever had though and the circumstances are too suspicious to ignore.

Oct 062014

This old WCG faux newspaper clipping was sent to us recently, and as the Feast of Tabernacles is gets set to begin it’s fairly fitting. There are numerous hallmarks of COG culture on display here:

“NOBODY BEEFS ABOUT INDIA’S RECORD BEEF” – Mocking other religious beliefs
“AN AWESOME DEMONSTRATION” – Delusions of grandeur
“TOTAL DISARMAMENT ACHIEVED!” – Historic doomsday predictions based on World War II and Cold War fears

Unfortunately we only received this photo and haven’t received shots of the whole issue. Does anyone have it? We’ve looked online and haven’t found any traces of this relic from a bygone era.

Edit 10.13.2014

Thanks to Mike_DDTFA for the PDF link!

Oct 042014

An estimated 700+ WCG splinter groups are scattered across the globe, so it’s very difficult to keep track of them all. However, few in the COG realize or acknowledge that WCG was itself a splinter from the Church of God, Seventh Day, which in turn split from larger bodies.

We’ve launched a project to allow people to interactively explore the COG family tree with a zoomable, sortable, draggable chart.

Most of the data represents schisms, but an obvious handful are organizational name changes, major shifts in leadership or otherwise transformed identities of these cults.

This obviously isn’t everything, but it includes information housed in our own knowledge banks and GCI’s original splinter chart. We’re putting the call out for anyone with any further information on splinter groups and from whence they descended to let us know in the comments, social media or via email. It’s our goal to make this as comprehensive as possible.

Zoom In/Out: scroll wheel | Zoom and Center: double-click | Expand/Collapse Node: left click | Reorganize Node: drag and drop

Oct 022014

What might a news story about maltreatment of members in RCG look like? We recently sent a letter to the Akron Beacon Journal in the hopes of someday finding out.

But since we aren’t holding our breaths, we’ve drafted a mock news story of what that might look like, mining the public comments left here at Silenced and statements made publicly by Pack’s critics. This exercise is to point out how simple it is to throw this sort of story together. It’s not an issue of people not being willing to speak out, because they have. It’s not a matter of being unfair to RCG, because it’s possible to write a balanced story while still highlighting a controversy. It’s not that it doesn’t have local news hooks for Ohio, because it does.

The point of this mock story is to show that there are no excuses for not reporting and writing a real one.

Obviously, we haven’t done the independent reporting a professional news outlet would. We collected sources willing to talk to the press about RCG, but we don’t want to contaminate the process in the unlikely case a reporter is going to spring upon the story. The following is a simulation.

A local church is drawing fire from former members over allegations of mistreatment from the congregation’s ministers.

The Restored Church of God, a Wadsworth-based Christian church, has been building a new compound slated for a 2016 opening within the town of 22,000. The church and its senior pastor David C. Pack have poured money into television and Internet marketing campaigns to spur further growth. But in the meantime, former members of the church have alleged abuses from ministers ranging from splitting up families to preventing elderly members from using the bathroom during church services.

RCG denies any wrongdoing and dismisses criticisms from form members as complaints from the “bitter.”

Shirley Ward, a 76-year-old former member, attended RCG for several months, but said she “got out because I was treated like a child in an elementary school.” Ministers required her to check in with members if she wasn’t going to attend church services, which happened occasionally due to medical problems. Whenever she didn’t call, she said she was reprimanded, regardless of whether the reason was illness, traffic or the two-hour drive time to Wadsworth.

A man who only identified himself as Don, another former member, said Pack has pressured members on disability to get off their benefits and find work so they can give money to RCG. Williams said Pack stated in a sermon ““you’re retired… you have to un-retire yourself, and if your disabled, you have to un-disabled yourself’, or you won’t get salvation.”

A source who wished to remain anonymous lost contact with his wife and family members affiliated with RCG, since relations with non-members are strongly discouraged.

Michael Venish, a former RCG minister who worked under Pack said the head pastor is prone to violent outbursts and exhibits “sociopathic” behavior. Venish, who was fired from RCG, has taken to criticizing Pack on YouTube and has since started his own church, the Vigilant Church of God.

Such splintering has been a common theme in RCG’s history. The church was founded in 1999 after David C. Pack was expelled from the Global Church of God, an offshoot from the now-defunct Worldwide Church of God founded by the late television and radio evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong. WCG adhered to a blend of Old Testament interpretation of the Bible and Millennialism — the belief that the elect will be resurrected to rule along Jesus Christ for 1,000 years following the Apocalypse. WCG’s scriptural literalism led to strict rules and a disciplinarian culture. Pack was an employee of WCG before Armstrong’s death in 1986 and now commands one of an estimated 700 or more splinter groups that arose following the church’s collapse.

Neither Ward nor her grandson were allowed to use the restrooms during Pack’s sermons, she said, which was difficult for her due to her medications. Ward said she received “tongue lashing” phone calls after church if they ever left during the sermon. Ward said she sent a “scorching” email to RCG about Pack’s “ego trips, constant need for money for his building fund and so on.”

Pack and RCG declined any further comment on specific allegations.

RCG started construction of its new Wadsworth headquarters in 2012. The compound is in part modeled on WCG’s now-defunct Ambassador College campus in Pasadena, California. RCG’s plans include a four-level administration building, a 450-seat auditorium, a mail processing building and an educational training center. The administration building officially opened in summer 2013.

“I hope those in the RCG wake up,” Don said.