According to a local news report, someone from within the department clicked on an email that featured a cloned address, thinking that it originated from someone within the department. However, all it did was open up the department’s computer network to a ransomware attack.
Once the tainted email was accessed, malware weaved its way through the department network, encrypting files in the process. Once the malware did its dirty deed, an automated message then prompted the victims to pay $4,000 to recover the encrypted files. But here’s the kicker; the Cockrell Hill Police Department did have the ability to backup their computers, but for some reason, automatic backups were not enabled until after the ransomware hit. This means that the files that were backed up were still encrypted.
"This was not a hacking incident," said Cockrell Hill Police Chief Stephen Barlag. "No files or confidential information was breached or obtained by any outside parties."
After consulting with the FBI, Barlaq decided not to pay the ransom, as there was no guarantee that the files would be returned in a usable state. “[The FBI] told us that some people whose files are infected pay, and they get their files back, but sometimes it doesn’t work. So we decided it was not worth it to pay, and potentially, not get anything back anyway.”
So, what did the department do? It completely wiped the computers servers and started over from scratch, losing all of the valuable information that stored on them in the process. While that is definitely a scorched earth approach that gives the ransomware writers nothing in return, those servers stored evidence that pertained to ongoing criminal cases. So, that information could be critical in putting a true criminal behind bars or exonerating an innocent individual. In this case, video evidence was among the files that were encrypted (and subsequently wiped clean).
"It makes it incredibly difficult if not impossible to confirm what's written in police reports if there's no video," stated J. Collin Beggs, a criminal defense attorney representing a client affected by this turn of events. "The playing field is already tilted in their favor enormously and this tilts it even more."
Ransomware attacks have picked up in frequency over the past few years, with hackers often targeting hospitals, where access to critical patient records and information can be a matter of life and death. Hackers likely reason that hospitals would be willing to fork over large sums of money to quickly regain access to their files.