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Scams are rampant during COVID-19. Here’s how a Tampa company’s payroll was hacked.

The incident is one of thousands of digital attacks that have ramped up during the pandemic.
Cheryl Parrish, a business owner in Tampa, received emergency federal funding for small businesses, but someone broke into her bookkeeper's accounts and was able to siphon off a portion of it. Pictured is Parrish. [Courtesy of Cheryl Parrish]
Cheryl Parrish, a business owner in Tampa, received emergency federal funding for small businesses, but someone broke into her bookkeeper's accounts and was able to siphon off a portion of it. Pictured is Parrish. [Courtesy of Cheryl Parrish] [ Cheryl Parrish ]
Published May 1, 2020

TAMPA — It took Cheryl Parrish 33 calls to understand what was happening.

The first came Monday morning when the bookkeeper who contracts with Parrish’s marketing firm, Franchise Marketing Partners, called saying there was a problem with the payroll. The Tampa-based company had just received around $28,000 through a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan.

All of it, Parrish said, was earmarked for two employees’ pay over the coming eight weeks. Back in late March, abrupt financial hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to lay off two longtime employees.

“I was constantly on the verge of throwing up," Parrish said. “Our employees are truly like family."

She was overjoyed when she was finally able to bring them back with the federal assistance.

Then $7,300 disappeared.

What Parrish learned through a series of calls to her information technology company, her bank and her payroll company was that the bookkeeper’s email had been compromised. Someone guessed the email account’s password and used it to gain access to the payroll account. They set up independent contractor accounts and siphoned off a portion of the federal funds.

They disguised their tracks by routing emails from the payroll company to the trash, then automatically deleting those emails. Parrish was surprised, as she said the company takes security and passwords seriously.

“We had this happen to another client probably six to eight months ago,” said Chris Ross, primary systems administrator at Visual Edge IT.

Visual Edge provides IT service to Parrish’s company. Ross helped investigate the issue and discovered how the unauthorized person got in. Parrish then contacted the Tampa Police Department.

The incident is one of thousands of scams that have ramped up during the pandemic. To combat scams related to COVID-19, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida launched a task force. Supervisory special agent Keith Givens, who works for the Federal Bureau of Investigations, said the task force has received “several hundred to a few thousand” complaints over the past six weeks, “well above what we typically receive,” he said.

Related: U.S. Attorney in Tampa launches coronavirus fraud task force

The FBI does not comment on or confirm ongoing investigations. Speaking generally, Givens said that while the task force hasn’t seen many companies be targeted directly for receiving federal relief funds, scammers could target a business’ payroll if they know that company is going to receive funds. Scams across the board are up significantly.

“It’s not like there’s a new channel that’s been opened to victimize businesses,” Givens said. “They’re victimized the same way as before (the pandemic).”

Ross said he recommends businesses use multi-factor authentication, which requires an extra step to log in. Long, complex passwords, too, can help prevent an attacker from guessing them. Ross recommends using a password manager, software that stores, encrypts and often generates passwords for accounts.

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