Fraud EDge

Cyberattacks in higher education at an epidemic level

Cybercriminals hit public institutions hard with ransomware in 2019 and 2020. Colleges and universities lost millions to fraudsters. These thieves endangered students’ records and stole PII, which they sold on the dark web. Administrators must train students, educators and staffs to avoid opening suspicious email attachments.

The University of Utah cyber event started with “an unknown entity” hacking into the College of Social and Behavioral Science computer servers on July 19, 2020, which left them temporarily useless. Administrative officials immediately notified law enforcement and the university’s information security office (ISO). The university then hired an outside consulting firm with specialized experience to assist. The firm’s technicians immediately isolated the hacked computer systems from the rest of the university’s systems. They then scrubbed the systems, and the ISO reinstalled the pertinent data from previous backups.

Because the systems contained student and employee personally identifiable information (PII), the university — in agreement with its consulting firm and insurance company — decided to pay a $457,059.24 ransom, which the hcakers demanded. The university did disclose its insurance policy covered part of the ransom. The university had to pay the remainder. It didn’t disclose the breakdown of the payments, but it did specify that it didn’t use any grant monies, donations, tuition fees or taxpayer funds. (See University of Utah pays $457K After Ransomware Attack, by Lindsey O’Donnell, threat post, Aug. 21, 2020.)

The University of Utah paid the unnamed cyber extortionists via Bitcoin and the hackers provided a code that released the locked data servers. Cybercrooks regularly specify digital cryptocurrencies for transactions because they’re fundamentally untraceable. (See Cyber swindlers take University of Utah for nearly $500K in ransomware attack, by Art Raymond, Deseret News, Aug. 21, 2020.)

The university continued to downplay the incident and claimed the cyber extortionists encrypted only .02% of the available data stored on the system before the university’s information security office discovered the attack. (See University of Utah pays $450K to Stop Cyberattack on Servers, by Scott Pierce, Salt Lake Tribune in U.S. News & World Report, Aug. 22, 2020.

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