Lakes Region Scholarship applicants may be at risk after computer breach

LACONIA — The Lakes Region Scholarship Foundation has mailed notices informing former Lakes Region high school students who had applied for scholarships during the period between 1996 and 2009 of a computer security breach incident, which may have resulted in the compromise of applicants' names, addresses and social security numbers.

Lakes Region Scholarship Foundation is a nonprofit corporation that provides scholarships to college bound students in the Lakes Region. According to Executive Director Joan Cormier, on Feb. 15 an employee of the foundation was contacted via telephone by a person purporting to be calling about a computer error message.

"Coincidentally," she said, "the employee who answered the telephone was in the process of installing an updated version of an anti-virus software program and had just witnessed an error message screen. Because of this fact, the employee assumed that the call was legitimate and gave the caller access to the computer system."

The person said that they were running a test of the system and then told the employee that they "had been hacked" and the computers were compromised. The employee became suspicious when the caller offered to fix the issue for between $399 and $599 and asked for a credit card. The employee then hung up, shut all computers down and contacted the Foundation's IT service provider, Cybertron Inc. of Belmont, who immediately responded.

Cybertron found that a certain program that would allow for future access of the system had been installed. Cybertron did not find any evidence that any files had been downloaded during the incident, or that any personal data had been compromised, and the foundation has since come to believe the security breach was intended as the first step in a now thwarted scheme to access its bank accounts.

In response to the incident, Cybertron immediately uninstalled the program that would have allowed for future access and took additional steps to ensure that the foundation's computers would not be accessed again as a result of the incident. The foundation contacted its banking institution to put holds on all electronically accessible accounts and subsequently closed and reopened bank accounts in order to safeguard the foundation's operating funds and the endowment funds used to provide scholarships.

"Our first concern was that we safeguard the funds that have been entrusted to us," said Cormer. "Thankfully, we acted quickly and decisively and not a penny was lost as a result of the incident."

The foundation also engaged Lawson Persson & Weldon-Francke of Laconia to ensure that it complied with all legal requirements relating to the incident. Prior to 2009, the foundation was required to collect and transmit Social Security numbers of those individuals who received scholarships to colleges and universities. Applicant names, addresses, other contact information and Social Security numbers were stored in Microsoft Access and Microsoft works database files and totaled 1,966 unique applicants. This information is protected under New Hampshire law and any unauthorized access of this information must be disclosed to those individuals who were affected. In this case, there was no evidence that personal information was accessed, but also no evidence to conclusively prove that it was not accessed.

Cormier said "regardless of whether we are legally required to do so, we have decided to notify all who may have had their personal data compromised. It would have been far easier to dismiss this incident and sweep it under the rug as a thwarted theft attempt. However, as an organization, we believe that it is important that we be upfront, open and honest with our applicants, donors, and the communities that we serve and, for that reason, we are proceeding as if an actual data breach has occurred."

In addition to the notices mailed to all potentially affected individuals, the foundation has also notified the New Hampshire Attorney General and nationwide consumer reporting agencies of the incident.

Computer data security breaches have become frequent occurrences in recent years with sophisticated large retailers, hospitals and financial institutions falling victim. However, Tracey Rich, vice president of Cybertron, ssaid "the major breaches are what make the 11 o'clock news but small-scale breaches occur far more frequently and impact a variety of organizations. Thankfully, the employee in this case acted appropriately when something didn't feel right. Unfortunately, others don't and the hackers are able to do substantial damage with the information that they are able to covertly obtain."

Rich said that there are a few simple rules that will help to avoid incidents like this.

"If you don't know someone and know them well, don't give them access to your computer system," he said. "Make sure that any new software that you are installing is authentic and doesn't include spyware or other malicious code that can be used to covertly access your computer. Beware of email attachments or hyperlinks in emails; if you question something, call or email the sender to verify that they actually sent it before opening a file or following a link. If you need to maintain personal information like Social Security numbers, make sure that these files are encrypted to prevent third-party access to them. Finally, password protect your systems and make sure that your passwords are not easily guessed."

Following these guidelines won't ensure that you won't be subject to a data breach, but they will greatly reduce the risk of one.

Former applicants, donors and members of the community with questions may contact the Lakes Region Scholarship Foundation at 603-527-3533.

Judge denies bail for Northfied man accused of selling heroin leading to fatal overdose


LACONIA — A Belknap County Superior Court judge has denied the bail request of a Northfield man who allegedly provided the heroin/fentanyl that killed a 21-year-old Tilton man.

Judge James O'Neill ruled that Brian Watson, 51, formerly of Northfield, will remain held without bail despite the fact that the state could not produce his girlfriend Teanna Bryson.

As part of his original $25,000 cash bail release, Watson was ordered to have no contact with Bryson. However, after posting bail, police stopped Bryson and during the traffic stop found her hiding under some clothing in the back seat.

The first time there was a rehearing, Bryson didn't appear because she said she was sick. She didn't appear at Watson's hearing on Monday but the judge determined that he had violated his bail conditions already and would stay incarcerated in the Belknap County House of Corrections while he awaits trial.

Laconia School Board takes aim at tax cap over cuts


LACONIA — "You're giving us a plate of s*** and slapping us in the face," a veteran teacher at Elm Street School told the School Board when it considered the 2016-2017 school district budget Tuesday night. "I don't get where you're going with this."

The remarks reflected premonitions that positions would be eliminated and pay raises withheld as the board, like a gaggle of limbo dancers, struggles to craft a budget that will pass under the low bar set by the tax cap.

A roomful of employees and parents, a number of whom were one and the same, echoed concerns expressed a week before about the likely closure of the Child Development Program at the Huot Technical Center and the adverse effects of the tax cap on the district's capacity to serve its students.

Earlier this month, City Manager Scott Myers advised interim School Superintendent Phil McCormack that the allowable increase in the school district budget would be $386,684, a figure that could increase slightly with the additional value of new construction accrued this month. Each $1 million of value of new construction would support approximately $12,000 of additional expenditure.

Business Administrator Ed Emond explained that the district is facing increased costs of $660,00 for special education, $390,000 for health insurance, $60,00 for workers' compensation, $35,000 for utilities, $20,000 for contractual obligations and $15,000 for transportation, which are offset by a $190,000 reduction in debt service, leaving a net increase of $990,000. At the same time, he said that revenue from sources other than property taxes is projected to drop by $686,000, with a $400,000 decrease in state aid representing the largest share of the shortfall. Finally, Emond said that negotiations with the Laconia Education Association and other unions representing employees of the district are underway.

A schedule of proposed cuts amounting to $1,641,995 prepared by the Budget and Personnel Committee was distributed. The list included eliminating 11 teaching positions – two in the elementary schools, three at the middle school and six at the high school – along with two administrative positions, a councilor and two secretarial positions. Other proposed cuts included the elementary school band program and reductions to to athletic programs at the middle and high schools.

Stacie Sirois, who chairs the board, stressed that no decisions had been made or votes taken, while McCormack said that the list represented "choices," none of them easy to make.

Chad Vaillancourt, who was echoed by others, pointed to the tax cap and urged parents to "start pushing back at the city level" and "call your city councilor." He referred to the plight of the schools in Franklin, which have operated under a tax cap since 1989. "See what goes on in Franklin," he said, "and reach out to you friends and family."

Steve Bogert, who chairs the Zoning Board of Adjustment, disagreed, saying that the problem lay not with tax cap but with the downshifting of costs and obligations by the federal and state governments to the local school districts.

McCormack replied that while the downshifting of costs and obligations weighs on all school districts, the tax cap requires reductions in expenditures. "There is no other option," he said.

"I am not happy with the proposed budget," began Mike Persson, a member of the Budget and Personnel Committee, reading from a prepared statement, "and believe that the cuts to existing programs that it contemplates are going to have a lasting adverse impact on our students. However," he continued, "under the tax cap provisions of the City Charter, the School District cannot propose a budget based upon the actual educational needs of our students."

Persson conceded that "the proposed cuts represent the best possible scenario under the circumstances" and said he would vote for the budget, which he called "woefully inadequate," as the best means for the school district to meet its obligations under the tax cap.

Noting that the tax cap also bears heavily on the city budget, Persson said, "If the override provision of the tax cap were ever going to be used, this would be the year to do it. Unfortunately, " he went on, "even if the City Council were to override the cap, this override does not roll over to the following year, and we will be in the same or worse position next year." He concluded that "without a change to the override provision of the tax cap, this year's budget crisis will be an annual occurrence."

The School Board voted to budget to the maximum amount permitted by the tax cap, a figure that remains to be determined, then tabled the budget until it meets again on Thursday, March 24.