Email scam almost costs Harris County $1 million

An apparent cyber scam could have cost Harris County almost $1 million. It was the talk of the county during the Commissioner's Court meeting on Tuesday. That money, of course, is taxpayer dollars and that's what Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez said as he went before county commissioners requesting an internal system review.

"You know, we live in a world where people hack into systems all the time and somebody, as you heard the Constable allude to, in the U.K., managed to hack into the system," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

Emails back and forth, between who the county believed to be one of its hired contractors, requested payment to a new account. A voided check with a new account number and routing number was even mailed to the treasurer's office back in October 2017.

"We hit the button, the money went out," said Sanchez. "$885,000 on a Friday night. Late Friday, we find out it's a fraudulent operation and as you know, once that money is deposited somewhere else, and particular wire transfer, you don't get that back."

Fortunately, the treasurer's office was able to retrieve the money after discovering the contractors they were corresponding with were not the real deal.

"This is all new and different," said Chris Bronk, a professor at the University of Houston College of Technology. "We now live in a world where people have committed cyber fraud to rob national, state banks of countries."

When Harris County received a request for payment and wired taxpayer money to the cyber criminal, it did not surprise Bronk.

"Yes, there are issues with it because email is very susceptible to tampering," said Bronk.

A fake identity can then be easily be created and then demand money, just like the crooks looking to rob the county of some dough.

This is an ongoing criminal investigation and Sanchez says the FBI is involved.

This is a good time to remember to always remain vigilant if you're making electronic payments and are notified of any changes, like a change in the account number. Contact the contractor directly or call that chief financial officer directly before sending any money.

Experts believe cyber crime will only continue to grow so always exercise caution.