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Ransomware Attacks Continue to Stack Up and Local Agencies Remain at High Risk

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Public library systems, water systems, law enforcement and health departments have all been recently targeted by the cyberattack tactic.

Now is a good time as ever for local government IT personnel to retrain employees on ways to be vigilant in the face of evolving cybersecurity threats.

“2016 is shaping up as the year of ransomware,” according to the Los Angeles Times, which on Tuesday examined the rise of the exploitative technique, where a cyberattacker is able to infect a computer system—often by way of an employee opening up an otherwise innocent-looking email attachment that contains malware—lock that system down until a ransom is paid, often in hard-to-trace bitcoin payments.

The cybersecurity sector has been sounding the alarm more and more about ransomware, but it’s taken more high-profile incidents for local government and institutional officials to take the threat more seriously.

The L.A. Times noted recent ransomware attacks against Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and the school system in Horry County, South Carolina.

While Horry County paid a $10,000 ransom and Hollywood Presbyterian paid a $17,000 ransom, the L.A. County Department of Health Services didn’t pay up but was able to mitigate the extent of the attack, according to the L.A. Times.

On Tuesday, the public library system in Crawford County, Arkansas, disclosed that it was a ransomware victim, according to the Times-Record newspaper in Fort Smith, which reported that somebody had been using the library system’s Wi-Fi network to distribute copyrighted materials and viruses.

In Nevada, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported this week that the Clark County Water Reclamation District was a recent target of a ransomware attack, though neither that agency nor the FBI would confirm the incident.

Often, smaller entities make for easier targets, as Route Fifty previously reported. That includes law enforcement agencies, which often end up forking over the ransom to resolve the situation quickly:

It’s unusual to think of police departments as the kind of organizations that pay ransom, but it makes sense when examined in context. Rather than going after larger organizations such as the state police or police departments in major cities, the criminals typically target small town or exurban police departments. Then, crucially, they ask for a modest ransom amount. For many of the police departments involved, it’s cheaper to taxpayers to pay the $500 or $750 than to call in the experts.

So what should local agencies be on the lookout for when it comes to ransomware threats?According to a McAfee Labs 2016 Threats Predictions report released last year:

Usually only Microsoft Office, Adobe PDF, and graphics files are targeted; in 2016 we predict that other file extensions typically found in business environments will also become targets. Attacks will continue on Microsoft Windows. We also expect ransomware to start targeting Mac OSX in 2016 due to its growing popularity.

And sure enough the first ransomware attack targeting Macs was detected over the weekend, but it was quickly contained.

However, it certainly won’t be the last attempt as the ransomware threat is only expected to grow.

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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