Lake City Latest Florida Victim to Pay ‘Ransomware’ Hackers


Another Florida city has succumbed to a “ransomware” attack and paid off cyber-extortionists in exchange for a decryption key to regain access to much of its paralyzed computer systems.

The Lake City City Council agreed to pay 42 Bitcoin — about $460,000 to $480,000 –to end a cyber-attack that began June 10 and disabled the city’s email, online utility payment programs and even its phone system.

Bitcoin, a cyber-currency difficult to trace, is the preferred exchange tender in what is becoming a growing menace to cities and utilities nationwide.

According to the FBI, there were 1,493 ransomware attacks reported in 2018 with victims — including individuals — paying $3.6 million to hackers.

A study by cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found at least 170 county, city or state government systems have been attacked since 2013, including at least 45 police and sheriff’s offices.

But those numbers — as the amounts of the ransoms — are increasing dramatically this year, the FBI reports, including more than 200 ransomware attacks against Atlanta and Newark, N.J., which have shelled out more than $6 million in payments and incurred $30 million in damage to computer systems.

Two Iranian suspects have been indicted by a federal grand jury, but they remain at large.

In March, Jackson County, Ga., agreed to pay hackers $400,000 to regain access to their files.

In addition, Baltimore refused to pay hackers $76,000 after an attack last month and has spent $18 million to recover encrypted computer programs.

That, ultimately, persuaded the Lake City City Council that paying the ransom would be less expensive than trying to restore its computer systems, which it had attempted to do for several weeks.

“Paying might be the cheapest option,” Michigan State criminal justice professor Tom Holy told the New York Times. “Which is really awful, but that’s the point we may be at. This ransomware threat is not going to go away anytime soon.”

Holy said governments and businesses must constantly update data on back-up systems to be less vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

Lake City, a city of about 13,000 residents 65 miles west of Jacksonville, joins Riviera Beach as the second Florida local government to pay “ransomware” in a month.

The Riviera Beach City Council paid 65 Bitcoins — approximately $600,000 — in late May to regain access to its computer systems.

The cyber-attack against Riviera Beach, a city of 35,000 in Palm Beach County, not only targeted city hall computers, but emergency services programs as well, forcing local police and fire departments to hand-write on paper hundreds of daily 911 calls.

The hacker, or hackers, who took Lake City’s computers hostage did not encrypt emergency service software.

Another possible “ransomware” attack was reported Monday by the Village of Key Biscayne, an affluent community of 13,000 east of Miami. Village officials have not disclosed further information about the “security event.”

As with Riviera Beach, insurance provided through the Florida League of Cities will cover the bulk of the ransom paid by Lake City.

A $10,000 deductible will come from Lake City’s coffers. Riviera Beach directly paid $25,000 in its deductible.

According to a Lake City press release, on June 10th, it “was targeted by a malware attack known as ‘Triple Threat.’ This malware program rendered many systems such as telephones and emails inoperable.”

The city said “Triple Threat” combines three different methods of attack to target network systems.

Although its IT staff disconnected affected systems within 10 minutes of detecting the attack, the city said the strain infected almost all its computer systems, other than police and fire departments, which run on a separate network.

The city said the ransom demand was issued a week after the infection, with hackers actually making the demand to the Florida League of Cities – its insurance provider – which negotiated the 42 bitcoin ransom payment last week.

The city council approved the payment on Monday, which was paid on Tuesday. The city received a decryption on Wednesday to regain access to its computer systems.

John Haughey is the Florida contributor to The Center Square.