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Ransomware Cyberattack Cripples Somerset County Government Offices

By Barbara A. Preston | May 26, 2022

Somerset County government is the most recent victim of an alarming rise in ransomware breaches, which increased by 13 percent nationwide in a single year - representing a jump greater than the past 5 years combined, according to Verizon's 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report, which was released on Tuesday.

County offices remain open for business as officials continue to evaluate the severity of a ransomware cyberattack levied against the county on Tuesday, May 24. Network-linked computers remain turned off, and county emails cannot be received or responded to by county personnel.

Somerset County Emergency 9-1-1-communications are unaffected and fully functional. Emergency services are available as usual throughout the county, County Administrator Colleen Mahr said in a press release that is available online.

“We are working hard to ensure vital services the public depends on continue to be delivered, such as recycling, road maintenance, and transportation for seniors,” said Mahr. “We have an outstanding IT department that is working around the clock to evaluate our situation, prevent further damage, and ultimately recover.”

The Somerset County Clerk's office is currently unable to provide most services that rely on Internet access.

As criminals look to leverage increasingly sophisticated forms of malware, it is ransomware that continues to prove particularly successful in exploiting and monetizing illegal access to private information, according to Verizon's 2022 report.

Organized crime also continues to be a pervasive force in the world of cybersecurity. Verizon reports that roughly four in five breaches can be attributed to organized crime. Heightened geopolitical tensions are also driving increased sophistication, visibility, and awareness around nation-state affiliated cyber attacks.

“Over the past few years, the pandemic has exposed a number of critical issues ... But nowhere is the need to adapt more compelling than in the world of cybersecurity,” said Hans Vestberg, CEO and chairman of Verizon, based in Basking Ridge. “As we continue to accelerate toward an increasingly digitized world, effective technological solutions, strong security frameworks, and an increased focus on education will all play their part in ensuring that businesses [and governments] remain secure, and customers protected.”

Somerset county had to use to Twitter to announce that Tuesday night’s Board of Commissioners meeting was postponed. Agenda items scheduled for the canceled meeting will be addressed in a Special Meeting scheduled for Tuesday, May 31 at 7 pm. The agenda includes formal adoption of the 2022 Somerset County Budget.

To ensure residents can reach the county, officials have created temporary Gmail addresses for the public to use to reach critical departments such as the County Commissioners, Health, Emergency Operations, the County Clerk, Sheriff, and Surrogate.

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Members of the public with scheduled county business are advised to call the county first to confirm that appointments and services are still as scheduled. Residents can call the main number at 908.231.7000 and follow the menu prompts to identify the appropriate department.

In New Jersey, "numerous schools, local governments, police departments, and hospitals have been impacted by ransomware attacks over the past several years resulting in significant operational disruptions and financial losses," according to the NJ Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell (NJCCIC), the first of its kind, state-level information sharing and analysis organization in the United States.

NJCCIC reports that Russian-state-affiliated actors have launched numerous disruptive and destructive ransomware attacks against targets throughout the world but primarily targeting US institutions. In 2021, the Russian-affiliated ransomware group Darkside compromised Colonial Pipeline, crippling the gas supply chain in the Southeastern portion of the United States. Also in 2021, another Russian-affiliated ransomware group Conti targeted JBS Meats, resulting in supply chain disruptions in the food industry.

Primary Election Will Continue as Planned

Digital records and voting machines for the upcoming Primary Election are never connected to the county system and are unaffected, according to the press release. The Board of Elections and County Clerk continue to perform election-related functions as normal, with the exception that replacement mail ballots can only be obtained by telephone or visiting the County Clerk’s office. Requests for mail-in ballot replacements can be made by calling 908.231.7013.

The calendar for mail-in, early, and in-person voting is not affected.

The county courts and jails are functioning as usual, and the 9-1-1- call center and county emergency services continue to operate without any problems.

Somerset County Clerk services that depend on access to county databases are temporarily unavailable, such as land records, vital statistics, and probate records. Title searches are possible only on paper records dated before 1977.

The County Tax Board continues to hear tax appeals on schedule dates, with its next hearings on June 3. Anyone with questions about an upcoming hearing can call the Tax Board at 908.541.5701 or write to its temporary email.

In Mercer County, reported that East Windsor officials experienced a cyber breach in March. Residents received fraudulent emails from an address designed to look like an official township address. Officials declined to say how that breach started.


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