Texas Municipalities Hit By Mass Ransomware Attacks

A recent mass ransomware attack on 22 Texas towns, cities, and counties highlights just how vulnerable smaller American towns are to this type of attack.

Ransomware is about taking over a device — or, as is the case in citywide attacks, taking over an entire network of devices — and then denying the owner access to it until a ransom is paid. Ransomware attacks can take the form of email containing malicious links, spam advertising, social media messaging, exploiting vulnerable software, and infecting otherwise legitimate websites.

One method of attack that’s becoming increasingly popular is phishing. Phishing is when a hacker sends an email disguised to look like it’s coming from someone important in a person’s life, like their boss or their spouse. The emails usually require some kind of urgent action , like sending information or clicking a link.

Once a person clicks on the link or downloads the file or views the infected site, their computer is taken over by malicious software, blocking them from accessing their data. (Another method is a redirect to a “secure” site, where the target voluntarily enters personal information that leads to a device takeover.) They then get message from the cyber criminals, demanding a certain amount of money in order to regain access to their data. Sometimes there will be an additional demand for more money if the criminals don’t get the amount within a certain period of time.

The one thing that all ransomware attacks have in common is that they utilize fear to get you to meet their demands. Fear of losing files — or fear of lifesaving services being down, in the case of cities — can make people act quickly and irrationally, just like they do in the movies. Cyber criminals are increasingly going after entire cities and towns, because they know that the urgency of getting city services — like police and fire departments, 911, animal control, and even wastewater management — will push city officials to pay up quickly.

"The enormous impact of city’s operations, like 911, courts, police and fire, and even non-emergency services creates a huge sense of urgency and anxiety,” senior security researcher with the Threat Resistance Unit (TRU) Chris Hinkley told Ars Technica. "With the high level of urgency and potentially mission-critical value of the data being held hostage, the threat actors are more likely to get paid, and at a higher amount, than if they attacked another target.”

In the case of the Texas attacks, the larger areas like Lubbock County had the infrastructure and resources to isolate the attacks and neutralize them without much damage done. But the smaller towns — and Ars reports of the 1,216 incorporated cities in Texas, only 35 have more than 100,000 residents. Until and unless state or federal governments decide to invest in better training and infrastructure for small American towns and municipalities, it’s likely we’ll continue to see mass attacks like the one suffered by Texas.

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