St. Johns County loses over $1 million to hackers, investigation underway

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ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — St. Johns County is working to get back over $1 million it lost to hackers.

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Over $600,000 of taxpayer money has been recovered as county law enforcement said it is ramping up its investigation.

No arrests have been made but law enforcement is involved and they’re working with the sheriff’s office and Secret Service to recover the rest of the money.

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The scam all started with 1 letter. The county was a victim to a business email compromise.

It started in July when the county thought they were talking to and paying DBE Utilities Construction, saying they changed their payment processing. But it was coming from a DOT “CO” email and not DOT “COM.” The county sent a payment of over $500,000. But it wasn’t actually to DBE.

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Brandon Patty, the Clerk of Circuit Court and County Comptroller brought it up in a county commissioner meeting.

“These scammers, this is what they do, day in and day out and we need to be one step ahead,” Patty said.

Documents show St. Johns County again paid the hackers for a separate payment of over $600,000 in September. But the actual company emailed them saying they hadn’t received any payments.

Tyler Chancy, head of cybersecurity for Scarlett Group said this style of hacking means hackers have been reading your emails for a while.

“They learn the habits, they learn the account, they learn the job,” Chancy said. “Once they have all the information and knowledge they strike at the right time. They launch the attack right when a bill is being changed or someone isn’t paying attention and they do it in a way that looks legitimate.”

So far roughly 60 percent of the money has been recovered, Patty said in the county commissioners meeting they’re finding third party solutions to the threats.

“Protecting tax payer dollars remains one of my highest priorities as the clerk of comptroller,” Patty said.

In a statement, Patty told Action News Jax until they find that third-party solution, “I will be personally signing off on any requests from vendors seeking to change their bank account details moving forward.”

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This happened easily and quickly but the county is confident they will recover even more money.

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