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U.S. Experiencing More Cyber Attacks and Texas No Exception, FBI Says

The state ranked third in 2022 for number of cyber crime victims, with thousands of criminal complaints.

A series of cyber attacks across Texas, including some in the Houston region, are part of a growing statewide and national trend of increasingly sophisticated groups working through computers to steal money and information, according to FBI officials.

In 2022, for instance, the FBI received more than 21,800 complaints of a cyber attack called a business email compromise scheme, totaling around $2.7 billion in reported losses, said Connor Hagan, a spokesperson for the FBI’s office in Houston. Of that total, around 1,900 were in Texas with about $260 million in losses. That's an increase from about 1,600 victims in Texas in 2020, according to FBI data.

“The fraudsters have become more sophisticated,” Hagan said. “And because they’re continuing to evolve, we’re seeing new things each day."

The FBI tips comprise just one type of cyber attack, Hagan said. Ransomware attacks accounted for another 2,300 complaints totaling more than $34.4 million in losses.

Texas ranked third in the number of total victims of Internet crimes and fourth in the reported losses from those schemes, according to the FBI’s 2022 Internet Crimes Report.

Hagan pointed to the recent case of Michael Knighten as an example of what some new cyber attacks look like. Knighten is a U.S. citizen living in Brazil who was extradited in June 2022 and later pleaded guilty to wire fraud in connection with a business email scheme, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Knighten would send fraudulent emails requesting changes in payment information using company vendors, officials said. But the new accounts weren’t the vendors’ actual banks. The scheme involved several companies in Houston, such as Bennu Oil and Gas Company.

Knighten has not yet been sentenced, officials said.

Several other Texas-based institutions have been affected by ransomware attacks in recent months. Cyber criminals use malware software to prevent institutions from accessing files on their computers, which they can then use to demand a ransom or auction off to the highest bidder.

Stephen F. Austin University, for instance, was hit by a ransomware attack from a group called Rhysida, according to the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel. The same group later claimed responsibility for stealing personal data from Lumberton ISD, according to the Beaumont Enterprise.

Some part of the uptick in cyber crimes in Texas is just because of the growth of technology in recent years, Hagan said. But cyber criminals have also tended toward the schemes because they are relatively easy to execute and profitable, he said. Many of those committing them tend to live overseas, which makes prosecuting them harder.

Federal investigators, however, have improved in recent years at freezing assets before criminals can access them, Hagan said. An FBI asset recovery team set up in 2018 had a 73 percent success rate in 2,800 investigations in 2022, freezing about $433 million in assets.

 (c)2023 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.