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Texas City’s Computer System Hacked in Cyberattack

Palestine, Texas, officials thwarted the attack before it cost money, but City Manager Leslie Cloer has asked a cybersecurity specialist with the Palestine Police Department to speak with city employees.

(TNS) — The city computer system in Palestine, Texas, was successfully hacked earlier this month, raising the question of how vulnerable the city is to other cyber-attacks.

City officials thwarted the cyber-attack before it cost them money, but City Manager Leslie Cloer has asked Detective Sgt. James Heavner to speak to city employees. Heavner is a cyber-security specialist for the Palestine Police Department.

“We're going to have an in-house cyber-security class,” Cloer told the Herald-Press Tuesday. “Our IT professionals and the PPD will instruct our employees on what to look out for.

“From an administrative standpoint, all offices are vulnerable to phishing scams.”

Palestine was not the only municipality under attack from unknown hackers this month.

Since the start of August, 23 local and state governments have had to go offline to combat the influx of electronic crime, specifically “ransomware,” or software designed to deny access to a computer system or data until a ransom is paid.

Ransomware typically spreads through phishing emails, or by unknowingly visiting an infected website.

The Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation believe the 23 attacks to be coordinated by the same group, most likely in West Africa. No arrests have yet been made.

Although there is no evidence linking the Palestine attack earlier this month to those that shut down neighboring municipalities, the use of phishing techniques in the attack, such as successfully accessing the city's email network, is similar to past cases.

Scam emails sent through Palestine's computer system, part of a so-called spear-phishing expedition, nearly cost the city $1,200.

An email to all department heads, purportedly from Palestine interim City Manager Leslie Cloer, directed supervisors to purchase “Google Play” gift cards for an unnamed project. Because Cloer was busy in meetings, the email stated, she would not have the time to do so herself.

The email, Cloer said Tuesday, looked almost perfect.

Some questioned the email and took no action. Three department heads, however, were “speared.” They fell for the scam and purchased the gift cards, totaling $1,200, with city credit cards.

They were instructed to scratch off the strip on the back revealing the gift card numbers, take photos of the cards, and attach the photos in a return email.

Luckily for the city, even more modern technology inadvertently saved the day.

Rather than email the card numbers, those who believed the scam sent photos to Cloer via text.

“The bad guys never got the numbers,” Finance Director Jim Mahoney told the Herald-Press. “They didn't get any money. Once we realized what was going on, I shut down the city's credit cards for a little over an hour, until we could figure it all out.”

Unable to return the gift cards, Mahoney said the city will use the $1,200 to make city purchases as they arise.

©2019 the Palestine Herald-Press (Palestine, Texas). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.