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Warning: School district cyberattacks on the rise


Cyberattacks are at an all-time high, and the FBI is warning school districts about the dangerous threat. From multi-million-dollar wire transfers to student social security numbers and employee bank account numbers, school districts are a cybercriminal’s dream target, and we are tracking cases happening right now all over the United States.

Data privacy expert, attorney and CPA David Bain is leading the way on providing information to school districts on cyber threats and how to react. Bain helped explain the threats at our recent Drive West Communications Intensive. He says it’s important to know the basics of how criminals act so you can be prepared.

The United States is the number one target nation for cyberattacks, and Texas is the number three target state in the U.S., per the Internet Crime Complaint Center. In 2015, there were 18,392 cybercrime cases in Texas with $62.9 million in losses. Anyone is vulnerable to cybercrime but, more recently, thieves are setting their sights on school districts.

Method: Phishing

Hackers often use phishing tactics to gain access to school district servers. Phishing is when hackers send an email that appears to be from someone the email recipient knows with the goal of tricking the employee into providing information like passwords. That’s how school district computers in the Dracut school district in Lowell, Mass. were attacked this month. An employee responded to an email she thought was from her boss, and it allowed complete access (and eventual takeover) of the district’s servers.

The district’s IT department quickly intervened and stopped the release of information, but the district ended up paying for a credit-monitoring system for employees and parents.

Method: Ransomware

Ransomware blocks access to computer systems until a ransom is paid.

Earlier this month, hackers infiltrated computers at the Valley Springs school district in Harrison, Ark. They demanded nearly $10,000 and held the computer system hostage. The superintendent refused to pay the money and said they would wait for data to be restored from backup computer systems. Just weeks earlier, the nearby Alpena school district and Carroll County Sheriff’s Department were also hit with ransomware attacks.

Thieves Often Demand Bitcoins

Bitcoins are a type of digital currency that can’t be traced. Cyber thieves often request bitcoins for payment and did this a few weeks ago at a school district in Hardin County, Tenn. The hackers locked the entire library server system and encrypted all files. A ransom note demanded 1.5 bitcoin, which translates to $1,341 in U.S. currency. Hackers said they would send a code to undo the hack when the ransom was paid. On advice from the FBI, district leaders refused to pay the money and instead are working to regain access to the system’s servers. The FBI warns that when you do pay a ransom to hackers, they often keep coming back for more.

Bain says these tactics, also known as “social engineering,” are hard to prevent because the person or organization targeted believes they know the sender, so they trust them. Bain recommends diligent monitoring and analytics to track a school district computers. For example, if you have highly sensitive files, an IT administrator should receive notifications when the files are downloaded or shared.

Transparency is Key for Trust

As more and more school districts continue to be attacked by cybercriminals, the best course of action is to act quickly in alerting your parents, employees and the public. School districts should also educate employees on the latest cyber threat methods so they are aware of what could happen.

Drive West Communications is prepared to help your school district prepare for and communicate about any cyber threat scenarios. For more information on how we can assist you, please contact us at info@drivewest.com.

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