Pinelands Regional School District Computers Hit by Emotet Virus

Same Virus Will Cost Allentown, Pa., a Million Dollars
Mar 07, 2018

The Pinelands Regional School District is grappling with a crippling virus. Don’t worry, you don’t have to keep your kids home from school. It’s a computer virus, a malware program that has infected many of the district’s computers.

For example, the last time the board of education’s budget committee met, it wasn’t able to accomplish much. The reason – a draft budget couldn’t be accessed because of the virus.

According to Pinelands computer tech Phil Holman, who was present Monday evening to livestream the school board meeting so community members could watch from home, the virus, called Emotet, recently wreaked havoc in Allentown, Pa.

An article in the Feb. 20 edition of that city’s daily newspaper, The Morning Call, confirms Holman’s statement. According to reporters Daniel Patrick Sheehan, Emily Opilo and Daryl Nerl, “A serious computer virus that has struck the city of Allentown’s most critical systems is expected to cost nearly $1 million to remove and has forced the city to shut down some financial and public safety operations.”

According to the article, Emotet first attacked the city a week earlier and had been self-replicating, stealing credentials such as passwords for city employees. The virus threatened all city systems that run Microsoft, including Allentown’s camera network that has about 185 security cameras watching locations across the city. The article also said the city’s finance department cannot complete any external banking transactions, while the police department cannot access databases controlled by the Pennsylvania State Police.

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski told The Morning Call that the city had already hired representatives from Microsoft for an initial $185,000 emergency response fee. But the mayor added that while the virus had been contained, it would cost the city an additional $800,000 to $900,000 to repair the damage the virus had already done.

Pawlowski also warned city residents to avoid opening emails and attachments they may receive from city staff, especially if those emails come from a city staff member not typically in contact with the resident. That may well be good advice for members of the Pinelands communities as well – open an email from Pinelands with caution!

When questioned about the Emotet attack, members of the board of education and Acting Superintendent of Schools Cheryl Stevenson didn’t seem especially upset or concerned.

What is Emotet? According to the website Help Net Security, the Emotet virus has been around since 2014. But Help Net Security also says the virus is continuing to evolve and, in September 2017, “staged another big comeback, fuelled, in part, by new propagation methods implemented in the newest variants. It can now also spread through networks by brute forcing Active Directory domain accounts with a dictionary attack and by using the EternalBlue exploit/DoublePulsar backdoor combo.”

No wonder the board and Stevenson didn’t seem too concerned. They, like this writer, more than likely can’t understand the intricacies of a computer virus.

Even a website such as Wikipedia that usually can boil down a complicated subject to understandable parts was incomprehensible to this reporter when talking about Emotet: “Emotet is a banking Trojan malware program which obtains financial information by injecting computer code into the networking stack of an infected computer, allowing sensitive data to be stolen via transmission. Emotet malware also inserts itself into software modules which are then able to steal address book data and perform denial or service attacks on other systems.

“Emotet has evolved in its delivery, however the most prominent form has been inserting malicious documents or URL links inside the body of an email sometimes disguised as an invoice or PDF attachment.”

Are you lost? But one thing that is immediately understandable is that Emotet has evolved to attack non-banking computer systems such as Allentown’s and Pinelands’.

Expect a follow-up story regarding Pinelands and Emotet, once this reporter can meet with The SandPaper’s IT expert so he knows what questions to ask the Pinelands Computer Operations Department. It will be dry reading, but taxpayers surely wouldn’t want to see the district hit with a million-dollar computer system problem.

— Rick Mellerup

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