The city of Ellensburg was able to recover money it lost this past summer in the payment of a fraudulent voucher.

The city was bilked out of $185,897 back in August when it paid a fraudulent construction voucher.

Wells Fargo issued a check for $184,417.15 to the city of Ellensburg, less handling fees.

“It’s unfortunate that we lost any money at all. But yeah, it’s a good day,” city manager John Akers said. “We filed a claim against (the fraudulent vendor’s) account with the Wells Fargo account in Texas, and it was basically handled as a non-sufficient funds claim. As soon as the account generated enough money to satisfy the NSL, they went ahead and paid us.”

The estimated annual cost of global cybercrime is $100 billion. Government institutions are hardly immune — the U.S. Navy sees 110,000 cyberattacks every hour, or more than 30 every single second. And it affects individuals as well. More than 600,000 Facebook accounts are compromised every day.

The Hiscox 2019 Cyber Readiness Report confirms the number of firms reporting cyber incidents has risen from 45 percent last year to 61 percent in 2019. Cyber attacks are all around us, but the city of Ellensburg caught a break in seeing its money retrieved.

Because the city was able to discover the cyber attack immediately and contact its banking institution, the process of retrieval went into affect almost instantly.

“We filed a report with US Bank and found out this was actually a ‘Mule Account,’’’ city finance director Jerica Pascoe said. “The funds were sent to multiple accounts. Wells Fargo opened up a fraud case and tried to get the money back from all the other banks it was dispersed to. They worked to reconcile differences and we were able to have our money returned.”

In August, the city received an email from someone representing themselves as the accountant for an construction vendor. The existing business arrangement with the company was to pay the vendor with a physical check, but the email request asked for an electronic transfer instead. The documentation appeared authentic, she said, everything seemed in order, so the electronic payment was sent to a routing number at a Wells Fargo branch in Texas.

“Everything we do for Public Works projects is public,” Pascoe said. “So what’s happening is that these cyber criminals are going online and researching who we have for contractors and they’re copying their company logos, emails and phone numbers. So what happened is that they found one of our current contractors that we did have invoices out for, and represented themselves as them for payment.”

Pascoe said her department is continuing its ongoing educational process to learn of the new and more direct schemes global hackers are implementing. The incident will not cripple the city’s way of doing business, but it will be more observant to current safeguards already, as well as looking into different layers of protection in the future.

“We’re diligent in looking at every voucher with a skeptical eye and double checking everything,” she said. “It will definitely slow down business quite a bit. Account information changes happen on a regular basis, but we’re going through multiple verifications.

“The first thought is to go back to paper checks and avoid electronic payment all together. But what we’re seeing is the same things is happening to other local governments. So we’re trying everything we can to verify before we act. We’re going back and researching old invoices, making sure we know as much about them as we can.”

The good news is that the City of Ellensburg was reimbursed $184,417.15. The bad news is that the cyber bad guys are still knocking at the door, looking for new ways to get in.


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