As if a month-long shutdown related to the pandemic wasn't enough, Polk County Tax Collector Joe Tedder recently had to close up shop for another two weeks for a different sort of virus — one that may have made available the driver’s license information of some county residents.
It all happened, Tedder explained last week, when an unsuspecting employee opened an email with an attachment that resembled a routine invoice. The worker clicked on the phony invoice, setting the virus software loose on some 55 servers and 300 desktop computers.
Almost immediately, a demand appeared on computer screens forcing an immediate shutdown of the tax collector's dozens of workstations, he explained. He added that no ransom was requested before his techs shut the system down.
Similar hacks have occurred in other county and municipal governments in Florida, some of which have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom to save their data.
“We knew it was a virus and, apparently, it was a brand new one, because it slipped by our security systems,” Tedder explained.
He added that his technology staff later explained that this particular virus, which remains unnamed, could also have exposed some personal information to the hackers before it was rooted out of the system.
According to his in-house techs and outside experts called in to help debug the system, state driver’s license numbers, names and addresses may have been exposed to those responsible for launching the virus.
“We are hopeful that we caught it before that information was available to these people, but I felt we had to notify our customers of what had happened so they could take appropriate action,” Tedder said. “Although the investigation into this breech found no evidence that any information was misused, everyone is encouraged to remain vigilant against incidents of identity theft by checking account statements for unusual activity or errors.”
He also said people should also monitor their credit reports for suspicious activity.
“If you see anything suspicious, you should immediately contact your bank, credit union, credit card companies or insurers,” Tedder said.
While the breech was concerning enough, Tedder said the additional two-week shutdown has put a strain on his staff countywide.
“We already had a backlog because of the pandemic shutdown, but add this to it, and we're pretty bogged down and can't provide the stellar service our customers are used to,” he added.
He anticipates another month before his staff can catch up with the backlog.
Meanwhile, to ease the burden on his staff, Tedder is asking that anyone who has business with the Polk Tax Collector's Office who can conduct business such as paying property taxes, business taxes or renewing car tags by using the office's website — www.polktaxes.com — to please do or send their payments or documents in the mail.
“Of course, if anyone needs to get a car tag or pay their taxes and don't have access to our website, we'll continue person-to-person transactions,” Tedder said. “We just want everyone to know this is temporary and hopefully we'll be caught up soon and can provide the top-notch service people are used to getting from our offices.”