County still working to address ransomware attack on Register of Deeds server | #ransomware | #cybercrime


The deed search feature of the Cumberland County’s Register of Deeds’ website is still disabled following a ransomware attack last week, which also impacted Hoke County.

Ransomware is a kind of targeted malware that typically holds files on a computer “hostage” until money — often requested in cryptocurrency, which is difficult to trace — is paid to perpetrators, who will then unlock the system or make the data available.

“It is something that takes place globally,” said Chris Herring, dean of the computer technology division at Fayetteville Technical Community College. “It’s very lucrative.” 

According to Herring, there’s been a 64% increase in ransomware attacks in the past year.

“It’s unfortunately something that takes place on a daily basis,” he said. “A lot of folks don’t realize it until they’re affected by it.” 

Ransomware can be either for a specific target, Herring said, or sent out at random. It is not clear whether Cumberland County was deliberately targeted or not, according to county officials. 

What is perplexing about this particular case, said Cumberland’s Register of Deeds, Lee Warren, is that the data being targeted isn’t sensitive or not accessible from the public — in fact, it’s still available in person, in hard copy form, at the register of deeds’ office. 

“This isn’t data that’s extremely valuable,” Warren said.

The data in question consists of property deeds spanning decades of history. The county deed office is most often used when property in the area is being bought or sold. Those transactions necessitate the filing of a new deed, which ensures continuity in record-keeping.

The now-locked online data is still accessible in person for those who need it. This includes real estate attorneys and Realtors, who now have to go down to the Judge E. Maurice Braswell Courthouse in Fayetteville in order to research or record a deed. The office is open from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.

When a house or other property is sold, the deed must be recorded at that office before keys can be given to the new owners — and before the sellers or the banks get their payment from the sale. The fact that the search portion of the site is down just means that everything moves more slowly — or, just as it did before it was offered online. 

“They’re doing it old-school style,” said Tonya Smith, Fayetteville-based broker-in-charge at Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, All American Homes Real Estate.

Smith said she’s still able to get business done at her office, but worries about future inconveniences if the site stays down for a longer period. 

“I’m sure if it continues on, there’s going to be some upset people not being able to get (funds) dispersed and get their keys,” she said. 

Smith added that since the county deed office closes at 3 p.m., late afternoon closures might mean buyers and sellers have to wait overnight for their sale to be finalized, which can cause inconveniences for all parties involved. 

According to Lee, Cumberland County could pay to unlock the data, manually input all of the data again, or try and recover it themselves. Warren did say the county won’t be paying the ransom at this point.

“This was a pretty sophisticated intrusion,” he said.

Warren did not give a timeline for a fix, but said he wants to make sure everything is back online before opening the site back up. The county will also be investigating where the attack came from once the issue is resolved. 

“Once we get the site back up, then we can worry about where it came from,” Warren said. 

For now, those who need the deed information will have to make the journey to the courthouse themselves. 

Contact Char Morrison at [email protected].

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