$460,000 paid to ransomware hackers in Florida

Officials in Lake City, in Florida, have found themselves in a film-like conundrum as hackers ransom the town’s cyber security for $460,000 (£363,000).

Hackers disabled the computer systems for two weeks by spreading a virus via a phishing attack, when an employee at City Hall opened an email link with the bug attached. Although computers were immediately disconnected after discovery, the malware had already seriously spread throughout the city’s computer systems.

Workers at city hall were left unable to use email and the public unable to pay bills, however, the police and fire department’s software as unaffected as it ran on a different system.

Paying the ransom

Despite the FBI telling Action Jax News that they don’t encourage ransom to be paid to cyber criminals, the mayor of the town says that it was in the interest of the citizens to pay the fee of almost half a million dollars to the hackers to gain back control of their online systems.

Lake City’s mayor, Stephen Witt, told the American news channel: “I would’ve never dreamed this could’ve happened, especially in a small town like this.

“Our insurance will cover all of it except $10,000.”

He added that paying the rest would be down to the citizens, whose insurance would probably go up as a result.

This is the 2nd city in Florida this week to pay a ransom to computer hackers, leaving the total paid to them standing at $1.1 million.

These types of cyber attacks are thought to be happening world-wide with an aim at trying to get money from governments and businesses.

Founder and CEO of web security company ImmuniWeb, Ilia Kolochenko, spoke about the worrying movement this type of online assault could create. He commented: “This is a truly alarming trend that will likely spur targeted, well-planned attacks on cities and similarly defenseless victims.

“Until today, based on our experience, ransomware against such vulnerable classes of victims were either unsystematic or of relatively poor quality. However, with such lucrative and easy stakes on the table, cybercriminals will now willingly invest to prepare sophisticated, hardly-detectable and well-targeted campaigns.”

Preventing ransomware attacks

On defending machines against ransomware, Paul Colwell, CTO for CyberGuard Technologies believes that putting all of the right software practices into place will help with prevention.

He said: “Unfortunately, ransomware is an area where prevention is key – whether a huge city or an SME [small and medium sized enterprises], make sure you’re scanning your machines regularly with reputable AV software to detect any anomalies, educate employees not to open unknown attachments, and back up daily. If you have business-critical data it’s certainly worth investigating cloud services, and when considering cloud services look at the restore times you might want for the data.”

His general comment about the situation in Florida was tinged with cynicism, saying: “With some organisations paying to recover critical data, we should expect that ransomware will continue its growth and will stay with us over the next decade at least.”

The hackers were paid in Bitcoin after a vote from officials.

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