BRADENTON, Fla. (WFLA) — Nearly $1 million in taxpayer money is gone from Manatee County coffers this week after cyber criminals duped county officials into paying for what they thought was official business.
“There’s a lot of head-scratching that’s still going on,” said John Neal.
Neal is the president of Neal Land & Neighborhoods. He said his company built Fort Hamer Road in Manatee County years ago and the county has been paying him back in installments since then. But Neal Land & Neighborhoods expected another installment last Friday, it didn’t come.
“In our normal course of business, we reached out and we were informed that the payment had already been made,” Neal explained. “That’s how we became aware, and that’s really all that we know.”
The Manatee County Clerk’s Office had already sent the money to someone pretending to be Neal Land & Neighborhoods.
“It is roughly, for the last number of years,” Neal said. “About $800,000 a quarter to $1 million a quarter.”
In a statement, the clerk’s office said:
Late last week, we learned our county was the victim of a highly sophisticated fraud. It involved multiple entities at various stages of the payment process. As Comptroller, funds were delivered based on fraudulent information and documents for an authorized invoice. We are working with law enforcement, the county, and my cybersecurity consultant. We cannot provide specific details now, but we will when we are lawfully able, as this is an active criminal investigation.Angel Colonesso, Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller
But that money may be long gone.
“Once it’s wired to say, a bank in New York, and then a bank in New York wires it to a bank in Asia,” said Dr. Tom Hyslip. “Two, three steps, it’s gone. You’re not getting it back.”
Dr. Tom Hyslip is a cybersecurity expert and assistant professor of instruction at USF. He said hundreds of millions of dollars are lost every year to crimes just like this one.
“Usually, how it plays out,” Hyslip explained. “Is the cybercriminal will email from the President or Chief Financial Officers and say ‘I’m working on this big deal, no one knows about it, but I need you to send $1 million to this company ASAP or we’re going to lose the deal.'”
Hyslip said cyber criminals use social engineering to prey on people’s fear, which is why it’s important to check with a boss or someone up the chain first before sending large sums of money.
He said it’s likely a hacker accessed someone’s email and has been waiting for a payday.
“In this case, since last Friday,” John Neal said. “We’ve done a thorough review and we don’t have any emails or any participation. But it made us re-look hard at our own elements.”
Neal hopes the county is able to recover the money.