About $6,000 was stolen from a SunTrust Bank account for Deer Chase Elementary School in September by a “fraudulent hacking group” based in Florida, Richmond County schools spokesman Louis Svehla said.
The same group accessed Deer Chase’s PTA fund in 2010, using debit transactions to pay for $8,000 of child support payments and cellphone and cable bills, bank statements show.
In both cases, SunTrust refunded most of the money, and Svehla said the bank has taken over the investigation into the matter. A SunTrust representative, however, would not comment on the issue nor confirm that a hacking group had accessed the accounts.
In Richmond County, about six people a month become victims of Internet hacking, which is a 60 percent increase since 2008, according to the sheriff’s office. Although school system officials said the Deer Chase incidents are the first time in at least 20 years that a school account has been hacked, there are precautions now that might prevent more problems in the future.
Richmond County Council of PTAs President Monique Braswell said the Deer Chase PTA account might have been compromised because of a lack of monitoring by the group’s administrators.
Money was stolen from the PTA account in May and June 2010 before anyone caught the transactions. Since becoming council president in 2011, Braswell said, she has more strongly enforced PTA regulations that require statements to be checked monthly and verified by two signatures.
“All statements are now checked and double-checked,” she said.
The stolen money was not noticed by the Deer Chase PTA administration until July, but SunTrust refunded most of it in August.
When the Deer Chase general account was hacked a year later, Svehla said, the problem was caught by the school’s bookkeeper during routine training.
When Anita Faglier, the district’s director of finance and accounting, was showing all school bookkeepers how to use new online banking accounts, the Deer Chase bookkeeper noticed the fraudulent transactions for child support and phone bills with school money, Svehla said.
Although it was suspicious that Deer Chase was hit by the same hacking group twice, Svehla said, the hackers could have noticed that the school did not immediately catch the first theft and figured they could easily breach the school again.
Brian Rivers, an information security officer at the University of Georgia, said anyone or any organization can become a target for hackers. If Internet users accidentally end up with malicious spy software installed on a computer, any credit card or account number they type on a Web site is visible to a hacker.
Hackers can also get financial information on a person from banks or collect personal information from other organizations and use it to steal someone’s identity, he said.
“That’s why there’s such a big business around hacking systems,” Rivers said.
About 6,563 cybercrimes in Georgia were reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center in 2010, which Rivers said is significant; the country’s worst year for hacking was 2008.