Cyberattack knocks out California community college email, website, landlines

A 12,500-student community college in California is suffering from a cyberattack that brought down the school’s online services and campus phone lines. 

College of the Desert – based in Palm Desert, California – did not respond to questions about whether the incident was a ransomware attack, only calling it a “computer network disruption” in a statement to The Record.  

College of the Desert public information officer Nicholas Robles called the incident a “malware attack” in an interview with local newspaper The Desert Sun.

On Twitter and Facebook, the school explained that it is experiencing a systemwide outage of most online services but noted that programs such as Canvas, Adobe, and Microsoft Teams are still available to students.  

College of the Desert is experiencing a systemwide outage of most online services. Systems and programs such as Canvas, Adobe, and Microsoft Teams are available now. We are continuing to work to restore access as soon as possible. Please return here for updates. Thank you.

— College of the Desert (@CollegeofDesert) July 5, 2022

In a follow up statement, the school said outside experts are working to restore online services and campus phone lines after the attack. 

“The College’s Information Technology staff along with a third-party firm are providing support and guidance to combat and minimize any further disruption from the July 4 incident,” the school said.

Officials created a temporary site because the original College of the Desert website is currently down. The temporary site has counseling resources and information on summer classes for students. Employees will not be able to connect to their VPN service.

During the outage, College of the Desert said students will not be dropped from classes due to non-payment of fees and confirmed that classes are not being canceled or impacted by the attack. 

A variety of other services are still available to students through a variety of online platforms. Officials plan to use the school’s text system to provide updates to students and staff. 

“We apologize for the inconvenience and will keep the temporary website updated with information and ways to access key information,” the school said. 

The school is federally recognized as a Hispanic-serving institution and mostly serves people living in the Coachella Valley of Riverside County.

A troubling trend

The Desert Sun said this is the second time College of the Desert has been hit with a “malware attack” after an incident in August 2020 and Robles said the FBI has been contacted about the incident. 

Community colleges like College of the Desert have become a popular target for ransomware gangs in recent months. 

Kellogg Community College was forced to cancel multiple days of classes in May after a ransomware attack.

Emsisoft threat analyst Brett Callow, who tracks ransomware attacks against schools and local governments, noted that at least 19 U.S. colleges have been impacted by ransomware so far this year and 26 were attacked all of last year. 

Austin Peay State University sent out urgent messages to students and faculty in April warning of a ransomware attack affecting the school’s systems.

Ohlone College, Savannah State University, University of Detroit Mercy, Centralia College, Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas, National University College, North Carolina A&T University, Florida International University, Stratford University are just a few of the U.S. schools attacked with ransomware this year.

The FBI said in May that Russian cybercrime forums are teeming with the network credentials and virtual private network accesses of employees from U.S. colleges and universities. 

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