An entire town's government in the midwestern US state of Ohio, Licking County, has been forced to shut down its computer networks and phone systems after hackers successfully infected them with a strain of ransomware and demanded money.
County officials say the infection started to spread on 31 January and the systems were then shuttered to salvage as much data as possible. Local media reports that all county offices remained open however a slew of online services and phone lines are no longer operational.
The cyberattack affected a number of local government departments, including the Licking County 911 centre and the county auditor's office. The FBI has reportedly been notified.
The staff was forced to perform many jobs manually – including the police. The Licking County health department and Park District were not affected, reports indicate.
"[A fix] is going to be awhile," Sean Grady, director of the Emergency Management Agency and Regional 911 Centre told the Newark Advocate. He added the emergency centre had been operating in "manual mode" since the infection took hold at the end of January.
He said the 911 centre phones and radios continue to work, however dispatchers working for the emergency services do not have access to their computers, he said. Luckily, citizens are still able call 911 for emergency, police, fire or medical response on external lines.
According to Grady the local sheriff, Randy Thorp, has supplied laptops so that police officers can still conduct background checks and use other vital services. "It creates some challenges," Thorp said. "We've got a lot of records in the system that we rely on."
Tim Bubb, the Licking County commissioner, has not disclosed the ransom amount the hackers demanded and said the choice about whether to pay or not is now at the hands of cybersecurity experts and law enforcement investigating the incident.
"You lose your computers, the world changes a little bit," Bubb told Nbc4i.com.
"This is a criminal activity. The people of Licking County and the people that work in these buildings, they were attacked by a criminal somewhere who created a ransomware that's designed to shake you down for money."
He added: "There's a ransom note and I'm not going to disclose what was asked. If there's any way we can find out, especially if this is domestic, then we can bring these people to justice or learn what happened so that we can avoid another county [...] from seeing this problem."
Other officials remained sanguine. "Apparently, our clock still works," noted county auditor Mike Smith.