Government held hostage: Are your records safe?

Published: Oct. 25, 2017 at 11:27 PM EDT|Updated: Dec. 6, 2017 at 7:59 AM EST
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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Ransomware attacks are on the rise across the nation. Local governments are juicy targets and a successful hack could bring the government to a standstill.

Information technology departments in the Cape Fear Region are on high alert to make sure your information isn't compromised by these hackers.

"We've actually had ransomware in the county," Leslie Chaney, the information technology (IT) director for New Hanover County, said. "But the scope has been minimized by the security measurements. We've never lost critical data or had to pay any ransom."

The hackers put a lock on the information and ask for money or else they will delete it. In some cases, governments have paid tens of thousands of dollars to recover vital information.

"I'm not surprised by any of those stories," Chaney said. "A lot of the breaches start with a human action such as following the link in the phishing email."

Chaney said the county has fallen victim to six ransomware attacks in her 13 years on the job here. But she said the county has never paid the ransom or lost any of the data.

Montgomery County, the largest county in Alabama, fell victim to ransomware attacks earlier in the year. County commissioners paid hackers nearly $40,000 to free up the information.

"There's a public urge that, 'Hey government, I need to use your services. You need to resolve this in any way you can,'" Dr. Lucas Layman, a professor at UNCW, said as he detailed the pressure governments can feel from the public.

In a report from WSFA, Montgomery County officials said the backup servers were more than 90 percent full and they planned to wait until the next budget passed to upgrade the servers.

Chaney said her team in New Hanover County takes extra precautions to make sure they aren't handcuffed in the same way.

"We have a person whose job it is to make sure those backups are successful every evening," Chaney said. "At any given time, we have three copies of every data set."

The hackers current focus is on local governments, but Layman predicts the ransomware could start hitting individuals more often.

"You need your own personal discipline. If the email looks fishy, don't click on it," Layman recommended. "Don't click on things (if) you don't know where they came from."

What seems like tedious, unnecessary steps can save you countless hours of headache and hundreds of dollars.

"(Ransomware) is one of those that, until it hits you, you don't appreciate how damaging it can be," Layman said.

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