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Ransomware attack and COVID woes force this 150-year-old college to shut down

A US college will shut down after falling victim to ransomware amid efforts to recover from the pandemic.
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Written by Liam Tung, Contributor on

Lincoln College in Illinois will shut down permanently this week after financial woes caused by the pandemic were magnified by a ransomware attack last December. 

In a note posted on its website, the 157-year-old liberal arts college in rural Illinois said it had survived multiple recessions, a major campus fire in 1912, the Spanish flu of 1918, the Great Depression, World War II, and the 2008 global financial crisis. 

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which harmed its already strained finances through a drop in enrollments and large tech investments required to support remote learning. The final blow came on December 19 when the college was hit by ransomware, which affected its IT systems for recruitment, retention and fundraising. Per NBC, it's the first US higher education institution to shut in part due to ransomware.

SEE: What is ransomware? Everything you need to know about one of the biggest menaces on the web

The college told NPR in March it would be forced to close at the end of the spring term, on May 13, unless it received a major donation or merger. The system outage lasted one and a half months, but the college didn't have a clear picture of its outlook until systems were fully restored in March. 

It said the ransomware attack "thwarted admissions activities and hindered access to all institutional data, creating an unclear picture of Fall 2022 enrollment projections".

The college continued: "All systems required for recruitment, retention, and fundraising efforts were inoperable. Fortunately, no personal identifying information was exposed. Once fully restored in March 2022, the projections displayed significant enrollment shortfalls, requiring a transformational donation or partnership to sustain Lincoln College beyond the current semester."

The historically Black college was established in 1865 and named after president Abraham Lincoln.

Per EdScoop, Lincoln College president, David Gerlach, appealed to Elon Musk via Twitter on April 5 for a "miracle gift" to save the college. The college was seeking a $50 million pledge to stay open, according to an April 15 report by The Chicago Tribune. A Go Fund Me campaign to save the college raised just $2,252 of a $20 million target. 

Gerlach told the Chicago Tribune the college was the victim of an Iran-based ransomware gang. He said the school paid a sum of less than $100,000 to regain access to affected systems. However, even after paying the sum, it still took months to fully restore systems.     

According to security firm Emsisoft, 26 US colleges and 62 school districts were hit by ransomware attackers in 2021. Data was stolen in at least half of the 88 total incidents. Ransomware gangs often steal data before encrypting systems, using the threat of a data leak to pressure victims into paying multi-million dollar ransoms.    

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