New scam targets: Schools, government offices see cyber attacks rise

Sophisticated and brazen digital scammers are targeting public organizations, keeping officials scrambling to create new, protective procedures to thwart thieves from stealing employee pay checks and department funds.

And there is no sign the cyber attacks are slowing, local public officials tell the Journal-News.

Recently, several local government offices have been attacked by payroll scammers, the latest being the Butler County government. An employee’s $2,145 paycheck was diverted to a scammer’s bank account under a new scheme that has become prevalent in government circles.

MORE: Butler County warning about scammers who stole worker’s direct deposit payroll check

Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds said someone obtained a county payroll direct deposit form and had one employee’s paycheck deposited into another bank.

“They (the employee) were out of the office and a change request went into the HR representative and there was a fake check and form with signature provided,” Reynolds said. “So the HR representative thought they were looking at all the information that was necessary to make the requested change and turns out it wasn’t the employee making the request.”

“This particular fraudulent attack is new and we have quickly adjusted our controls to safeguard from it happening again.”

Area schools and their thousands of employees are also seeing more scam attempts. One of the most high-profile incidents in the region came when the superintendent of Dayton Public Schools in Montgomery County was scammed out of her pay check.

Butler County’s largest school system has 1,700 working in Lakota Schools, and officials there find themselves battling more scams than ever.

“After the payroll scam that took place in Dayton a few months ago we changed our procedures for changing the banking institution for payroll direct deposit,” said Jenni Logan, treasurer for the 16,500-student Lakota district.

“But I can tell you we have been targeted more than once with scammers posing as executive team members or building principals. We have also had a scammer try to divert funds to a vendor we pay electronically on a monthly basis. As the scammers become more and more creative and innovative we have to be more vigilant,” she said.

Butler Tech, one of Ohio’s largest career school systems, is also experiencing more scammers.

“Across the district, we see various levels of attempted attacks that require ongoing staff education to thwart attacks intended to steal, alter or destroy our data or fiscal property,” said Paul Carpenter, treasurer and chief financial officer of Butler Tech.

Local school officials said they have been forced to expand the traditional professional development lessons for teachers to now include being more knowledgeable about scammers, malware and cyber attacks.

“The key to prevention is to be proactive by educating our staff of potential threats and how they should react if they encounter an attempted cyber attack,” Carpenter said.

It’s the dark side of interlinking public data bases, easier information access for all school employees and the growing complications of electronic communications, said Middletown Schools Treasurer Randy Bertram.

“With the advent of sophisticated technology scamming has become more prevalent. And there are times that the level of modern technology allows for ruthless individuals to get ahead of us,” said Bertram.

Middletown Schools saw “eight duplicated checks for $7,033.51” generated by scammers.”

“Our bank did cover the cost so the district was not out the money but it did cause us to enact bank technology to try to prevent future like issues,” he said. “Of course there is added cost for this banking service.”

Smaller school districts aren’t immune.

Monroe Schools Treasurer Holly Cahall said “we have had emails targeting the staff in the Treasurer’s office asking us to transfer money somewhere, but our staff are trained to know what to watch for.”

Talawanda Schools officials said cyber security testing of its employees are sort of a new version of the traditional school fire drill.

“Clearly cyber-security has become a key safety factor in our world and will continue to in the future, so this has been added to the menu of safety discussions and protocols that we review regularly in our meetings and in our schools. We test our cyber security as we test and conduct drills on all areas of safety or safety concerns,” said Talawanda Spokeswoman Holli Morrish.

The city of Hamilton recently took a scammer hit. The city is now out $2,460 after a scammer sent a fraudulent direct deposit form, according to Finance Director Dave Jones.

“The city’s payroll department recently received two phishing emails, posing as employees asking that their bank direct deposit information be changed,” Jones told the Journal-News.

“The city realizes that phishing and similar scams are a persistent threat. We constantly monitor and mitigate such activity while working to educate our staff on red flags to be on the lookout for,” said Jones.

Logan, who is a veteran school treasurer and former Ohio School Treasurer Of The Year, said the cyber attacks go on around the clock.

“We continue to be on high alert,” she said.

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