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Texas County Appraiser Hit with Ransomware Demand

Attackers are seeking $700,000 from the Tarrant Appraisal District, following an incident last week that took its new website offline. It’s unclear whether sensitive information has been compromised, a cybersecurity attorney said.

A monument sign announces the Tarrant Appraisal District outside its Texas building.
The Tarrant Appraisal District building on Thursday, March 16, 2023.
Amanda McCoy/TNS
(TNS) — Ransomware attackers who took control of the Tarrant Appraisal District website have demanded $700,000, the district announced Monday.

The hackers have threatened to release “sensitive” information if their demands are not met, but TAD does not know if they actually have any information, said Lindsay B. Nickle, a cybersecurity attorney from Dallas hired by the district. The district said it is weighing its options, but does not want to pay, Nickle said.

Nickle and TAD suspect that Medusa ransomware, which was first spotted in 2021, is behind the attack.

Medusa has previously used extortion and the threat of selling sensitive information on the dark web as a tactic to negotiate, according to the U.S. Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency.

Jingguo Wang, a professor of information systems and operations management at the University of Texas at Arlington, told the Star-Telegram Friday that the public nature of TAD’s security struggles might have made them a target for the attack.

TAD board members did not field questions following their closed session about the matter Monday afternoon.

Following closed session the board approved the reallocation $235,000 to purchase Microsoft Office 365, the cybersecurity platform Sentinel 1 and a cybersecurity consultant.

Tax Assessor Collector Wendy Burgess — who is a member of the districts board — was not present for the meeting.

The site has been down since the attack on Thursday, the second time it crashed in two weeks. TAD’s email and phone lines are still down.

After the initial crash on March 14 — which the district blamed on a “database failure” — the district rolled out its new website ahead of its planned launch.

This is the second known attack on TAD’s computer systems in the past two years.

In October 2022, a cyber attack exposed taxpayer data, though none of it was compromised, according to a report released March 1.

In April 2023, its website crashed after appraisal notices were sent to property owners, who for weeks were unable to protest their values online.

That began months of turmoil for the district, including the resignation of the chief appraiser, who stepped down after the Star-Telegram exposed comments made by an agency senior manager, who suggested TAD lied to the public about problems with its website.

On Friday, Tarrant County Judge Tim O’Hare told the Star-Telegram in a statement he is “hopeful” new chief appraiser Joe Don Bobbitt and the new board would resolve the security situation as well “other problems caused by the previous regime at TAD.”

On Friday, board members Rich De’Otte and Alan Blaylock both voiced confidence in Bobbitt.

During the emergency meeting Monday afternoon, the board showed a united front with multiple members highlighting how quickly they were notified of the issue and thanking TAD leadership with staying in constant communication.

Four members of the public spoke at the opening of the meeting and were quick to remind the board of TAD’s turbulent past, including property tax consultant Chandler Crouch, who has been a vocal critic of the appraisal district in the past.

“We have a new board, we have a new chief appraiser, and here we are yet again with a myriad of TV cameras, every news station in town, and a scandalous situation in our hands,” Crouch said. “This is the very reason why we cannot ignore the past. We absolutely have to deal with the sins of the past that linger on today. We may have some people here that need to go.”

Crouch also urged the new leadership to remain transparent on the security breach.

“I want to see ownership of the entire problem, absolutely telling us the truth, as ugly as it may be and I want to implore you to do the hard thing,” Crouch said.

The district sets property appraisals and administers exemptions for tax purposes.

©2024 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.