Consultant, school system officials say hackers pose common woes for institutions

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Jul. 16—While Joplin officials continue to mostly remain mum, a failure of the city government’s computer and telephone systems more than a week ago could have been the result of a ransom demand, a Joplin information technology expert says.

City systems seemed to be operating July 6, but city officials announced July 7 that the city’s computer systems were down. That interrupted the city’s internet-based telephone system and its online capabilities.

In a statement, the city called it a “network security incident” and said it was reported to a law enforcement agency.

There has since been no explanation of the cause and not much word on the status of the investigation. City officials did cite phone system restoration, but nothing about the computer systems. In recent days, the city has not made further statements or answered Globe questions sent to officials about the situation.

Ransomware attack?

John Motazedi, the owner of a local IT consulting firm, SNC Squared, speculated that the city might have been hit by ransomware, a malware program used to encrypt computer systems. Motazedi said his opinion is conjecture but that the failures reported by the city resemble what happens when hackers disable a system to demand a ransom payment.

Motazedi said there are several ways to infect a computer system with crippling software. It can be done by sending a coded program through an email that can unleash encryption through the system, downloading a malicious program without knowing it is infected, or by going into the system’s servers, the central brain of a computer system, to implant the encryption.

“Typically they get in through some administrative account because that account can get into other machines that are connected together,” Motazedi said. An administrative account is used by IT technicians to oversee computer operations and make changes to the system.

Once a system is overtaken by encryption of its programs, the user cannot operate the computer or the system but will instead receive a pop-up message to pay a certain amount of money to receive a code that can be used for decryption. Typically, internet criminals demand payment in bitcoins, a kind of online currency difficult to…