FBI investigates Augusta computer crisis – a possible cyberattack

Published: May. 24, 2023 at 12:20 PM EDT|Updated: May. 24, 2023 at 5:43 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The FBI confirms it’s investigating the incident that’s crippled the city of Augusta’s computer systems in what could be a cyberattack.

Mayor Garnett Johnson on Tuesday said “unauthorized access” caused the crisis that’s gummed up many city operations for the second time in a week.

When asked whether the FBI is involved, an agency spokesman in Atlanta said: “Yes we can confirm FBI is engaged with the City of Augusta and investigating.”

The outage was discovered Sunday, on the heels of an apparently unrelated 24-hour outage last week. Officials are actively investigating whether sensitive data was taken. So far, indications are it has not been.

City leaders said emergency dispatchers and first responders are operating as needed. But other departments are having problems.

Signs outside various offices are telling the public that services are limited due to the outage.

Those places included probate court, where a sign told visitors on Wednesday: “We will be closing at 12 p.m. due to technical issues. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

A sign warns of early closure on May 23, 2023, at Richmond County Probate Court.
A sign warns of early closure on May 23, 2023, at Richmond County Probate Court.(WRDW/WAGT)

Richmond County Tax Commissioner T. Chris Johnson says his staff has deployed limited laptops to offices across the county, so the sites are now open and operating after a two-day shutdown. Johnson said the staff will be understanding of anything that’s late due to the brief shutdown.

Johnson said: “We were able to redeploy those at all three offices and continue to process, but because we don’t have as many of those, we can’t do it as quickly as we normally would.”

Tag renewal and vehicle registration is still operational online and at kiosks for tag renewal. However, you’ll have to come in person payment of property taxes, as well as business and personal taxes.

The Augusta Utilities Department can’t access personal account information on customers, so the department will be flexible and not shut off water or other utilities for the time being.

You can still make card payments online and in person, as well as cash or check, but the staff members can’t see if you’ve overpaid or underpaid. They say they won’t hold that against anyone while the system is still down.

“The first thing that affected us the most is the inability for us to get into our billing software, which is all the detailed data on everybody’s account, and how much they owe, and where they’re at in the billing cycle,” said Steve Little, assistant director of finance for the Augusta Utilities Department.

The department hasn’t worked out a long-term solution if this problem lasts weeks longer, but the staff is looking at options.

Regardless, the department is open in person to help with any questions about paying the typical monthly fees.

The department’s customer kiosks are also working.

Richmond County Animal Services says volunteers are needed at the pet shelter to help identify missing pets, and the credit card machine isn’t working, so cash is needed for any transactions.

Becky Reece, outreach coordinator for Augusta Animal Services, said: “There are many lost dogs that have come in that are not listed on the website. And because of that, we recommend that anyone who is missing their dog or cat, come down to the shelter to do a physical walk-through to see if their pet is here.”

The Augusta animal shelter could use some volunteers right now, managers say.
The Augusta animal shelter could use some volunteers right now, managers say.(WRDW/WAGT)

Gary Coker with Central Emergency Medical Service, Augusta’s ambulance operator, says the cyber issues have interfered with sharing of electronic records back and forth via computer with the 911 dispatch center. But he said crews are overcoming the issue through a “manual” system. They still communicate by radio and no one’s safety has been in danger, Coker says.

We reported a few weeks ago that 911 dispatchers in Augusta are still using an old fashioned “flip-book” system with medical information printed on paper pages in binders. Obviously, that’s one system not affected by the outage.

After a meeting to deal with computer problems the city has struggled with twice in a week, Mayor Garnett Johnson blamed “unauthorized access to our system.”

Whether by design or coincidence, the Augusta Commission last week approved the purchase of new IT equipment including computers, servers, printers, scanners, switches, routers, VOIP phones and other items. The approximate estimated total cost for items scheduled to be replaced, upgraded or purchased in 2023 is $655,000. Funds are included in the 2023 information technology budgets as well as SPLOST 8.