STATEWIDE – Part one of the series “Held for Ransom” talked about one way hackers are targeting local government offices in Maine and across the country.
But what’s making these groups so vulnerable, and is there a way the attacks can be stopped?
At Bangor City Hall, Jeff Courtney and a team of specialists closely monitor the city’s computer system.
“There’s a lot of personal data that comes in and out of the city,” said Courtney, the city’s I.T. administrator. ‘We try to protect that as best that we can.”
But Bangor, like Rockport, Augusta and other across the state, has found itself targeted by ransomware.
“The attacks that we’ve had, we’ve been prepared for, but who knows what the next attack is going to bring?” Courtney said.
“Everybody has to think that this can happen to them,” said Sepideh Ghanavati, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the UMaine School of Computing and Information Science.
According to the FBI, the attacks can come from individuals in the U.S. or overseas, including those working for terrorist organizations.
“Cyber criminals out there are always adapting,” said David Farrell, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division’s cyber and counterintelligence programs.
There’s a reason they’re targeting town offices.
“There are a lot of vulnerable networks out there,” said Gus Natale, the I.T. specialist for the town of Rockport.
Agent Farrell says hackers target computer systems the same way burglars target houses to break into. On any given street, robbers look for weaknesses, like a home with no security system or one with an open window. The same analogy applies to cyber criminals.
“They’re looking for that least resistance, a person that they know is vulnerable, may not have the operating systems,” said Farrell. “I know if I get in there and I’m able to get somebody to click on a link, lock their computers up, that they’re going to have to pay me.”
There are ways strengthen and protect a computer system, like installing anti-virus software and email filters.
Specialists also recommend you have a backup off site, not directly connected to the network. That way, if your system is attacked, you have a full backup to rely on.
“If that bad day happens, you have that to go back to,” said Farrell. “That’s a great day for you, that’s a great day for us.”
They’re all suggestions Gus Natale says he made to the town of Rockport, but were not implemented.
“Because that didn’t happen, they got hit,” Natale said.
Natale says towns, like Rockport, often can’t justify spending the money on cyber security systems, which can be costly, in order to protect against a “what if” situation.
“I think a lot of it has to do with every town’s budget, whether or not they have the money to put into security,” said Natale.
“‘We need to spend it on this, we’ll never be a victim of ransomware,'” Farrell said of how some local decision makers might think. “But in this day and age, I believe it’s worth the money to spend up front to have these systems in place.”
One of the best ways to stop an attack is through education and training, something practiced by the City of Bangor on a regular basis.
“We offer, on a yearly basis, training for the employees,” said Courtney. “What to look for, for suspicious emails, what’s a phishing-type of attack in an email.”
After all, as the FBI works to investigate these attacks and bring the hackers to justice, cyber criminals are working, too.
“It’s always a race,” Ghanavati said. “Cyber security experts become smarter, they become smarter.”
“Be prepared in case it does happen, because it’s not a matter of if,” said Farrell, “it’s when.”
For more information on ways to keep your data safe, or to report a potential attack, visit the FBI‘s Internet Crime Complaint Center.