DESOTO COUNTY, MS (abc24.com) - The phone bill for DeSoto County government is more than $23,000 higher this summer. The extra charges were racked up by hackers who infiltrated the system and made a lot of international phone calls. The county is now, to no surprise, rethinking its security.
Phone companies say hackers have hit several different counties all over northern Mississippi. It only takes a few hours to run up huge phone bills.
"At 2 a.m. one morning they dialed in," says John Mitchell, the county's IT Director. DeSoto's government offices were hit in June. The hacker's trail is complicated and virtually untraceable.
"They were dialing into phone systems and would use that system to dial into another phone system and dial into another phone system eventually the destination call ends up in central Africa." Calls were going to the tiny nation of Comoros, an island off Africa's eastern coast. Victims, like DeSoto County, were left with a hefty receipt.
"$23,000 for 181 minutes worth of phone calls," Mitchell explains. At $20 or more per call, he says the charges rang up quickly. The county could have been held liable.
"We were also allowing international calling, which was unbeknownst to us until we found out the fraudulent things," he says. "That's what they preyed on and were able to guess somebody's password."
Luckily, the phone company recognized the fraud and Mitchell just worked out a deal canceling the debt. "Part of the agreement to forgive it is for us to make sure we're closing any loopholes."
The county is requiring employees to set new, hard-to-guess voicemail passwords. International calls are now forbidden. Mitchell says there's a lesson to be passed on from this.
"People think you just pick up the phone and make a call," he says. "They don't realize there are features in the system someone can take advantage of."
Mitchell says some Mississippi counties had bills over $100,000. The hackers also struck in Tate and Panola counties. So far no one's had any luck tracing the source.