Presidio County Appraisal District files hacked

MARFA, PRESIDIO – Presidio County Appraisal District Chief Appraiser Cynthia Ramirez said the district’s main server was infected by Rapid Ransomware last week and all access had been blocked to its photographs and documents.

On Monday, April 23, staff knew something wasn’t right when the system started acting wonky, Ramirez said. When a staffer tried to upload a new photo of a property, it sported a “rapid ransomware” watermark.

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that threatens to publish the victim’s data or perpetually block access to it unless a ransom is paid, according to Wikipedia. Ransomware attacks are typically disguised as a legitimate file that the user is tricked into downloading or opening when it arrives as an email attachment.

It is believed that the virus was attached to an email opened early last week on the computer in the Presidio office, which is connected to the Marfa server, Ramirez said.

The attack, indeed, came with a ransom letter. “Hello, dear friend!” the message said in a simple, type pad note. “All your files have been ENCRYPTED. Do you really want to restore your files? Write to our email . . . and tell us your unique ID . . .”

A report was filed with the Marfa Police Department, Ramirez said, to document the incident, although it’s not likely the hackers will ever be discovered.

The Presidio ISD information technology staff, under a PCAD-PISD interlocal agreement, has been helping out, as has Harrison True Automation, the provider of the property tax and appraisal software.

Presidio ISD IT department head Carmen Rubner had IT staffer Julian Moreno come to Marfa and work with True Automation. They were able to contain the encryption, and the infected files were removed from the server and saved on a USB drive. The server is now clean, she said.

Likewise, Moreno checked the Marfa computers and found them virus free. The Presidio office computer was cleaned and has been taken offline for the time being.

Ramirez said the cyber-attack didn’t affect the PCAD website and its database, but most of the district’s documents supporting the appraisal process are now inaccessible. There are still records of values, appraisals, exemptions, she said, just no supporting documents and photos.

And little, if none of the private information the appraisal district keeps on property owners is believed to have been hacked, she said. Social Security information, dates of birth, and driver’s license numbers are redacted before those documents are digitized and uploaded on the server.

“We lost minutes of meetings, two years’ worth” and documents associated with protest hearings and related affidavits, she said. Appraisal districts are on strict timelines in the annual valuation, appraisal, and property taxing process that not only includes individual property owners but also the taxing districts.

Ramirez said that the mailing of 2018 property value notices has been delayed for about a week. “This will set us behind on sending out preliminary values and notices.” Remarkably, the 2018 preliminary values were sent to the taxing entities, Ramirez said.

Reporter Robert Halpern is a Presidio County Appraisal District director, representing Marfa ISD.