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Martin County Tax Collector's possibly hit by ransomware attack

Martin County tax collector office closed
Posted at 4:16 PM, Oct 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-28 18:13:09-04

MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. — WPTV is learning more about what might be causing the lengthy closure of the Martin County Tax Collector's offices for nearly two weeks.

Whether it’s renewing a driver license, selling or buying a car or home, or paying your property taxes, you may not realize how critical tax collector services are until you can’t access them.

For nearly two weeks, customers at Martin County Tax Collector's offices have been turned away or sent to neighboring St. Lucie County for help while the Martin County Tax Collector worked to resolve what she calls "network issues."

Tax collector Ruth Pietruszewski won’t say what those issues are or if personal info has been jeopardized.

But WPTV obtained copies of text messages that were sent from Martin County’s IT department Sunday morning, Oct. 17, to constitutional offices around the county, warning that the tax collector’s network was hit by BlackByte ransomware.

Alan Crowetz, CEO and president of Infostream, Inc., explains how it typically works.

"Usually a fake email," Crowetz said. "They send an email out to try to get someone to click something and run something and it runs something that goes and scrambles all the files on the network.”

Then a password is placed to unscramble the files.

"So all that data is no longer usable unless somebody has that password. That’s when the ransom comes in. If you want us to unlock all your files that are shutting down the network, you can pay us a large amount of money," Crowetz said.

Texts show by Sunday afternoon, the tax collector brought in a private company to try to recover the network.

On Monday, IT workers determined the tax collector was the only office hit, and there was no evidence of BlackByte ransomware in any other county offices.

Crowetz said getting around ransomware is nearly impossible if you don’t have good backups. Two weeks of trying to recover the network, he said, isn’t a good sign.

"So it’s been this long, there were some major, major mistakes made," Crowetz said. "Should taxpayers up here, customers be worried about their personal information being out there? Typically no. But I will say it does happen and we have to assume the worst. In security you can’t assume, I hope they didn’t get it or there’s a 90% chance they didn’t get it. So in this stage they’re probably in pure panic mode."

Martin County said it has also offered assistance to the tax collector's office.

But in the ongoing confusion for residents and county leaders the county also said Thursday that the company the tax collector hired to resolve the issue is now retracting its blame on BlackByte ransomware and said it has still not determined the exact nature of incident.

On Thursday evening, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder release the following message to residents:

The Martin County Tax Collector’s Office is experiencing a countywide computer interruption which has affected most of their services. Martin County residents may not be able to make necessary changes to their driver’s licenses or license plates as required by law until the issues are resolved.

As a result, Sheriff William Snyder has directed all law enforcement personnel to refrain from issuing citations to Martin County residents with expired license plates or driver’s licenses until further notice.