Published: Sat, December 09, 2017
Industry | By Dora Warner

Hackers hold county files hostage

Hackers hold county files hostage

Mecklenburg County computer systems that collect property taxes, handle building permits and process jail inmates were out of commission while technology workers made digital repairs with backed-up data. It does not appear that Charlotte's government was compromised by the ransomware, officials said.

The county manager said that contrary to erroneous reports, the hackers are only demanding $23,000 in ransom to release the data - but the process of establishing a cryptocurrency account and using it to meet the demands could take several days. "You get used to doing certain things online, and when you have to slow down, it costs you time and time costs you money".

But Flowers Grube said the problems don't extend to processing emergency calls, which is handled by the city of Charlotte.

Mecklenburg's woes began when a county employee opened a malicious email attachment Monday that subsequently unleashed a programming worm that quickly traversed its computer system, The Charlotte Observer reported.

"It was going to take nearly as long to fix the system after paying the ransom as it does to fix it ourselves", she said.

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Many county-run services have been delayed.

Third-party experts retained by the county believe the ransomware is "a new strain" known as "LockCrypt", and "very little is known about it", the county manager said.

Cyberattacks on local government are becoming increasingly common and sophisticated.

At least two county commissioners said they had not been briefed on the additional information regarding the actual total of the ransom when contacted by WBTV on Wednesday morning.

An expert on cyber security told The Associated Press that it's not uncommon for municipalities to be hacked with ransomware. It also contained an email address and instructions on how to pay the ransom. "In paying these ransoms, it's obviously encouraging others". On Tuesday, employees couldn't print, call centers were down, and the code enforcement office had no access to electronic files stored on servers. The Montgomery Advertiser reported that Montgomery County, Alabama, faced disruptions to some operations even after paying hackers in September. Not paying and instead rebuilding applications could take longer still, she added. In November 2016, a ransomware attack on San Francisco's transit system resulted in officials shutting down ticketing machines, allowing free rides for much of a weekend. Achieving that goal will require the county to use its backups to rebuild applications from scratch, the county said.

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As the county's IT staff worked to recover from the first cyberattack, Diorio said, they discovered more attempts to compromise computers and data on Thursday.

Officials in North Carolina's Mecklenburg County were in touch with hackers, believed to be from Iran or Ukraine, and planned to decide Wednesday evening whether to pay them $26,000 to win the release of multiple files held hostage on county servers. He said he was told the county hopes to fix the problem "this week". "Overall, this is not as bad of a story as it could have been". Then, the information was encrypted or locked, keeping employees at the county from accessing operating systems and files.

During the day, however, the value of Bitcoins soared from $23,000 to $26,000.

"I am confident that our backup data is secure and we have the resources to fix this situation ourselves", county manager Dena Diorio said in a statement Wednesday.

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