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Opinion

Dallas Central Appraisal District ransomware attack should be a warning to us all

Businesses, consumers and governments should use extra caution heading into holiday season

The increase in ransomware attacks across the country in recent years, hobbling everything from oil pipelines to hospital systems, hit home this month when the Dallas Central Appraisal District was hacked.

For more than two weeks, the district’s computer systems have been shut down, its website, servers and email all sidelined while technology experts and the FBI investigate and work to get it up and running again.

As we enter the holiday season, we urge the private and public sectors alike to be extra cautious when using computers and other devices. That means, among other things, bolstering defenses and not clicking on suspicious emails or ads, which are often entry points for hackers looking to spread malicious software programs.

Once it infects a computer or device, ransomware encrypts its data and makes it unstable. The cyber criminals behind the plot then hold the data hostage until a ransom is paid, often exerting additional pressure by threatening to destroy the data or release it to the public. The FBI discourages paying the ransoms, but victims often choose to do so to mitigate damage.

That was the case in May 2021 when hackers infected the networks of Colonial Pipeline Co., which operates the largest fuel pipeline in the country, supplying 45% of the gasoline consumed on the East Coast. The company agreed to pay the criminals $4.4 million in cryptocurrency.

According to the FBI’s 2021 Internet Crime Report, ransomware resulted in $49 million in losses to victims that year. And attacks continued to increase, especially with the growth in remote work and schooling, the report said. Most alarming, of the 16 “critical infrastructures” identified by the FBI as crucial to national security and safety, 14 of them were subject to attacks.

Ken Nolan, DCAD’s chief appraiser, told us that the attack on his office thankfully came during its slow time of year. A ransomware attack in the spring and summer, when the district handled a record number of protests and reappraisals, would have been far more difficult, he said. Every day, the district also finds more files that were not corrupted, he added.

Nolan said he’s working with a “third-party team of negotiators” to communicate with the hackers. At the time of our talk, he said no ransom demand had been made.

The hackers have threatened to post the district’s data on the internet. “Our response was, ‘Please do,’ ” Nolan said, adding that the vast majority of its data is public record. Meanwhile the business of the district continues. Appraisers are working “out in the field with pencil and paper, just like in the old days.”

We hope the appraisal district soon can put this terrible crime behind it and the cowards responsible are brought to justice. Meanwhile, we urge businesses and consumers alike to keep in mind the dangers that lurk behind our screens.

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