Ransomware Cripples Ohio County Government for Days

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Ransomware has completely shut down the communications networks of a major county in Ohio.

The Licking County government offices, including the police force, the county auditor's office and the clerk of courts, have lost online access and landline telephones. The shutdown, which began with a phishing email, is expected to continue into the weekend. The amount of the ransom has not been disclosed, but the county is working with local and federal law enforcement, it said.

"The rest of this week we'll be in a manual mode," said Licking County Commissioner Tim Bubb, speaking to the local paper. He said anyone who needs to do business with county government should physically go to the appropriate office. "And, there's no promise everything will be up and running on Monday morning."

For those manning the 911 phones, the shutdown has knocked them back 25 years in terms of process. The 911 Center phones and radios work, but dispatchers don’t have access to their computers, so everything is being written down on paper. More detailed questions are being asked now that location information and the like is no longer a keystroke away.

The effects are far-ranging: The Licking County Department of Job and Family Services has no telephone service with which to conduct interviews, and those reporting child abuse or neglect must now call the sheriff's office instead of Family Services; Medicaid applications, normally processed in Newark, Ohio at a shared services call center, have been moved to other locations. People can pay tax and dog license payments, but they won’t post until the computers are back up. Part-time employees have been told not to come to work.

"When you're computer dependent, especially government, it makes it difficult to do much,” said County Auditor Mike Smith. “Appraisers are in the field because they can't do anything on the computer. We've let a handful of people go (home early). Their sole function is to do data entry and [they] can't do anything. If this goes on for many days, it's going to be difficult to come up with work."

These sorts of attacks are far from unusual, and organizations of every stripe should prepare with a backup strategy and advanced security strategies.

“The Licking County Government in Ohio is yet the latest victim of the formidable ransomware trend which continues to accelerate,” said Moshe Ben-Simon, co-founder and vice president of TrapX Security, via email. “Organized crime is manufacturing new ransomware weekly and deploying it far and wide across all tiers of city, county and state government. This is a global phenomenon still on the upswing and with no end in sight.”

He added, “These attacks will not stop. If anything they will increase in frequency. If you pay them there is no guarantee they will release your data. Further, they have every incentive to come back and try to ransom your data again. Government institutions must always pay particular attention to backup and recovery procedures—you are more likely than ever to require implementation of these processes given the current hostile cyber-environment.”

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