Local municipality battles ‘cybersecurity incident’ after flood of spam emails

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Elgin County has hired an outside consultant to help it recover from a ‘technical disruption’ it is took down its website and email system weeks after Warning a “cybersecurity incident” had targeted the local government, The Free Press has learned.

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The London area local government website was down on Friday as its information technology department and a third-party expert work across the system-wide issue, the county’s top administrator said.

“We are still determining the root cause,” Chief Administrator Julie Gonyou wrote in an online message exchange on Friday. “The website and incoming/external outgoing emails are down while we assess the root cause of the technical disruption and work to resolve a number of technical issues.

The website and email outage comes two weeks after Gonyou, in an internal memo to county staff reviewed by The Free Press, warned officials were facing a “cybersecurity incident” and appealed to a consultant to help solve it.

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In the memo emailed March 31, Gonyou wrote that county officials were concerned about a large amount of spam sent to Elgin County staff.. Many of the emails contained malicious attachments or links and were sent from doctored emails to make it look like they were legitimate senders, Gonyou’s email noted.

The memo said county officials were closely monitoring any potential data breaches and warned that the volume of spam messages could become unmanageable, forcing a temporary shutdown of the messaging system.

Elgin has cybersecurity insurance and works with an adjuster for his insurance company, who offered “resources and supports,” the internal email noted.

The cyber disruption is being felt across multiple counties in Elgin County.

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Local library system officials spoke to Facebook on Thursday to acknowledge that its branches were facing “computer difficulties” and that no fines or late fees would apply during the disruption.

Elgin County Warden Mary French, who is also mayor of Aylmer, could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Inquiries to St. Thomas Police and Elgin OPP about potential investigations into the Elgin County incident were not returned Friday. Gonyou said the county is still able to serve the public in person and said the information technology team is working to resolve the issue by next week.

Elgin is just the latest local government or public institution in southwestern Ontario to be caught in a security situation with its computer systems.

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Stratford City Hall paid a ransom of $75,000 in Bitcoin to hackers after a cyberattack in April 2019. City officials said the attack involved ransomware, a computer program that blocks access to the system until until money is paid to unlock it.

The 2019 attack blocked City Hall’s email and phone systems and parts of its website. The decision to pay the ransom was made in consultation with the town’s insurer and with data security in mind, the mayor of Stratford said at the time.

In September of that year, Woodstock City Hall was hit by a three-week cyberattack that left staff unable to access their work emails or computer networks. The Woodstock Police Department was also caught up in the attack.

The ransomware incident cost the city more than $667,000 to fix, but the money didn’t go to the hackers. Woodstock City Hall has paid more than $550,000 for outside experts and tens of thousands more in overtime to rebuild its computer networks.

— with files from Jonathan Juha, The London Free Press

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