June 15, 2024

The theft of over $1 million from City Hall is being investigated by the Tallahassee Police Department (TPD) and U.S. Secret Service. The crime, termed a “cybercrime,” was allegedly perpetrated by an individual posing as a city vendor.

On Thursday, city officials registered a complaint with TPD’s Financial Crimes Unit regarding the theft “of more than one million dollars in city funds through an external entity,” stated a city press release.

“TPD is committed to investigating fraudulent activity allegations diligently and leaves no stone unturned,” the city mentioned in a press release. “Detectives and the Secret Service are jointly striving to recover the city’s stolen funds and ensure that justice is served in this case.”

City Commissioner Curtis Richardson was briefed by City Manager Reese Goad about the incident on Friday, he informed the Tallahassee Democrat. He indicated that the crime involved an impostor claiming to be a city vendor and that a similar crime had transpired in Fort Lauderdale.

“The individual who supposedly received the funds impersonated the authentic vendor due for payment. From the scant information the city manager has shared with me, that seems to be the course of events,” Richardson elaborated.

Goad informed Richardson that the Fort Lauderdale incident resulted in the city recouping its money.

“We are optimistic that we’ll recover the money as well,” Richardson expressed. “The problem is being tackled proactively, and the staff is working relentlessly towards a resolution.”

The city’s communications director, Alison Faris, termed the incident a “cybercrime” in an emailed comment, while not divulging further details.

“The city is grateful for the hard work of the Tallahassee Police Department and United States Secret Service in their efforts to resolve this cybercrime as rapidly and efficiently as possible,” Faris stated.

Christian Doolin, the Assistant City Manager, conveyed to the Tallahassee Democrat that their primary goal was recovering the stolen money and ensuring that justice prevails. The investigation, he mentioned, was “progressing quickly.”

“In situations like these, swift action greatly influences the possibility of recovering any stolen assets,” Doolin emphasized.

Fort Lauderdale’s experience with a $1.2 million phishing scam

Last September, Fort Lauderdale cleared a $1.2 million bill pertaining to a construction vendor who was apparently part of a nationwide construction fraud operation, based on U.S. Secret Service information.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department quickly became aware of the incident, traced, and successfully recovered the money. Reports suggest that the funds were siphoned off through a phishing operation connected to a romance scam involving several victims.

In January, the Fort Lauderdale PD declared the recovery of the stolen funds. In that case, the local police collaborated with the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, and law enforcement in Mariposa County, California, Avondale, Arizona, and Lee’s Summit, Missouri.

The when and how of the Tallahassee theft and whether it was part of an equivalent scheme remains unclear. TPD did not respond to calls for comments.

Whether this case is linked to the under-construction new TPD headquarters at the former Northwood Mall site is also unclear. TPD was suggested by Doolin as the best source to answer questions regarding the case specifics.

A local representative of the Secret Service refused to comment on any active investigation.

Large payments totaling six or seven figures to vendors are quite common for the city for various goods and services.

The city’s online ledger records the purchase of over $4.3 million in natural gas from six different suppliers on Feb. 28, 2024. One of the nine transactions was slightly above $1 million. The correlation between the stolen money and these expenditures, if any, is unknown.

Previous significant theft at City Hall was in 2019

The city of Tallahassee has been a victim of large-scale theft earlier too – in 2019, close to $500,000 was illicitly obtained from the city’s payroll by a foreign entity who hacked into the city’s third party vendor.

The ensuing inquiry, which also involved the Secret Service, revealed that the cyber attack had redirected the automated payments of 192 city workers, exposing the weak security protocols of the payroll system.

Tallahassee Police Sgt. Adam Miller, who oversaw an investigation into a 2019 foreign cyber-attack of the city's direct deposit payroll in April, displays a credit card maker.

Out of the stolen amount of $499,000, about 83%, i.e., $410,000, was recovered and employees were duly compensated.

For breaking & trending news, contact reporter Elena Barrera at ebarrera@tallahassee.com. Follow her on Twitter at @elenabarreraaa.