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November 07, 2019

Cyber Attack Hampers County Departments to Varying Degrees

     The April 13 ransomware attack that crippled the county’s computer network and disabled its website had varying effects on county departments, officials said.


     The Sheriff’s Office, for example, suffered little while the District Attorney’s Office struggled mightily.  


     Communications for all of the county suffered, though, as email was still offline as of April 23, with county departments using alternative gmail and other email accounts to conduct business, county Public Information Officer Linsey Dale stated.


     Phone service, which uses the county’s computer network system to function, had been brought back up for the most part, but on April 22 and April 23 information technology experts working with the county were still experiencing intermittent problems, Dale added.


     Citing the reaction of District Attorney Gilbert Otero, arguably the harshest blow was struck was to his office.


     “It created a mess. Everything we do depends on filing papers,” Otero said during an April 22 interview, adding that much of the work in his office is done electronically through email and the Internet. “This thing just killed us.”


     Otero said public safety was never compromised, and all the paperwork that the D.A.’s office was required to file ended up getting done, but it took a Herculean effort by his clerical staff and attorneys.


     He described criminal complaints being put on flash drives and clerical staff physically walking over documents to be printed and filed in court.


     “They were real troopers,” he said of the clerical staff and attorneys.


     “We knew it was going to be tough,” Otero said. “We didn’t know it was going to be that tough. … It shows how vulnerable we are, and I don’t think anybody wants to be in that situation.”


     The Sheriff’s Office, on the other hand, didn’t suffer all that much.


     “We were pretty lucky, Sheriff Raymond Loera said April 22.


     The Sheriff’s Office isn’t really tied into the county network, Loera explained, and the phone system is fairly independent of “downtown,” he added. Emergency calls to the Sheriff’s Office were unaffected by the ransomware attack.


     “So we are doing almost business as usual,” Loera said.


     He added because his department is still reliant on other county offices for some business, there has been a bit of a slowdown.


     “We have to wait on some information, but emergency services were not hampered,” Loera said.


     Other departments, including the Treasurer/Tax Collector’s office and the Assessor’s office, for instance, were somewhere in between.


     Treasurer/Tax Collector Karen Vogel said April 22 her office was still processing property tax payments manually.


     Vogel added the department was able to process property tax payments electronically through April 12, the day prior to the attack.


     However, any property tax payments mailed to the county around April 10 and after will be delayed being posted.


     “It has slowed down our process of getting checks into the bank by a week or two,” Vogel added.


     Imperial County Assessor Robert Menvielle said his department is “open and conducting business; we have appraisers out in the field.”


     He said the Assessor’s office does process appraisals electronically, but its works independent of the county network.


     “This is not a real difficult or challenging time for us,” Menvielle said on April 22.


     Menvielle did say some property owners’ information is not as readily available to the public as it was before the attack. Part of the reason, he said, is information technology experts in the county are still scrutinizing the restored network.


     “We hope to have all that information back and available to the public by the end of the week,” he explained.


     The public information Menvielle is referring to is property ownership, appraisal and building records information, which he said is available on “hard copies” at his office, just not in searchable form through the computer.


     As for those on the outside who conduct business with county departments, only Amy Volmer, president of the Imperial County Association of Realtors, spoke to the Calexico Chronicle before the newspaper’s deadline.


     Volmer said April 22 that with the county’s website and network down for five business days last week, it affected the ability to communicate with the Imperial County Recorder’s office to record titles of properties sold and changing in ownership.


     “A couple of people had to wait a couple of extra days to have their properties recorded,” she said.


     The delay apparently did not cause any financial difficulties for any real estate agents or homeowners, Volmer added.

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