October 15, 2019

Ransomware attacks on the rise

Author: Kara Smith
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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It cost the Syracuse City School District $50,000. Rockville Centre schools shelled out $80,000. Monroe-Woodbury, Orange County’s largest district, was forced to cancel its first day of classes. 

Ransomware attacks are on the rise. And school districts are prime targets, due to the rich trove of personal information they house, and budget constraints that can hamper their ability to fend off digital intruders.

This year alone, hackers victimized at least four New York State school districts. 

Syracuse City schools still haven’t fully recovered from a July ransomware attack. Although restoring payroll was a priority, members who attended summer professional development workshops are still awaiting reimbursement due to system lags.

“We can only log into our employee self-service portal, to check paystubs, sick bank accruals and other information, while we’re in the school building,” said Bill Scott, president of the Syracuse Teachers Association. “Before we could access it from home.” 

The prevalence of ransomware attacks is making many school staffers ask themselves — what can we do to help keep our system safe?

Knowledge is power

One of the best defenses is knowing how ransomware attacks occur. 

“It’s often a people problem rather than a tech problem,” said NYSUT’s Chief Information Officer Donna O’Leary, who heads the union’s Information Technology department. 

A common cybercrime trick is visiting sites like LinkedIn, to identify organization leaders, and using their names to farm an entire organization. “They email staff pretending to be that person and try to get others to respond, a process called phishing,” she said noting that since the appeals come from a leader, and sound convincing, they sometimes are successful. 

“By clicking on links or attachments in these messages a ‘back door’ can be opened that allows the attacker to place a ransomware on the loca computer and beyond,” said O’Leary.  
Once ransomware is installed, the software ties up the computer system forcing districts to either pay the ransom, or figure out how to recover their data using decryption keys. Since the ransom is often less than the fix, many victims choose to pay. 

“Awareness is key when it comes to cybersecurity,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, whose office oversees the union’s IT department. 

“If you get an email that sounds off, make a quick phone call to the sender to make sure it’s correct.”

You or your IT Department should also be vigilant about updating your computer’s software, Web browser and antivirus protection. And be wary of downloading information off the Web, opening unfamiliar attachments or clicking on certain advertisements. 

“Just visiting certain websites can put your system at risk for a ransomware attack,” said O’Leary. “Nothing can replace vigilance.”

“These days, the question is not if — but when — an attack will occur,” said O’Leary.

At the federal level, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer recently announced his support for the DHS Cyber Hunt and Incident Response Teams Act, legislation that would create and fund specialized Department of Homeland Security teams to respond to, and prevent, ransomware attacks. The bill passed the House and Senate and awaits the president’s signature. 

To learn more about protecting yourself, and your district, from ransomware attacks, visit the Federal Trade Commission at  

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