The top official of the Republican Party of Wisconsin said Thursday that hackers stole $2.3 million during a crucial phase of the presidential campaign.
Party Chairman Andrew Hitt said the loss was attributed to a phishing attack that has been reported to the FBI.
The Madison office of the FBI is investigating the matter, the Journal Sentinel has learned.
“It was a devastating moment,” Hitt said of when the discovery was made.
The disclosure less than a week before the election comes at a difficult time for Wisconsin Republicans. The state Democratic Party has raised 2½ times as much as the state Republican Party over the last two years and President Donald Trump has trailed Democrat Joe Biden in polls in a state Trump narrowly won four years ago.
Hitt said the party discovered the attack Oct. 22 and by Friday morning realized the money was taken from accounts and the FBI was notified. The money had been earmarked to pay vendors working on Trump’s reelection campaign, Hitt said.
Hitt said the Republican National Committee made the initial contact with the FBI and then he was called by the FBI’s Madison office.
“The sophisticated criminal began with a phishing attack,” Hitt said. “Once in the system, they were able to manipulate information in our emails and on invoices and documents that then resulted in them obtaining $2.3 million.”
Hitt said the attackers “were able to change invoices, wire instructions … The money was wired to the hackers instead of the vendors.”
“Obviously, the hackers were extremely skilled and knowledgeable,” he said. “They came into one of the most vital battleground states at the perfect time when resources are being spent.”
Hitt said the hackers “targeted only vendors that were working for the president’s campaign.”
He emphasized the party was not wiped out financially and still has resources to move forward in the closing days of the campaign.
“The president’s reelection plan is in place,” he said. “It’s an extremely strong plan moving forward and being implemented. A lot of those things are in place.”
Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman said officials do not believe those who broke into the party’s computer system stole strategy documents, donor information or data files it maintains of voters across the state.
The state Democratic Party has faced hundreds of attempted cyber attacks in recent years but none have been successful, party spokeswoman Courtney Beyer said. Employees are trained how to identify phishing attempts, she said.
The announcement about the Republican hack comes amid fears of a range of cyber attacks meant to disrupt next week’s election.
Recently Russian hackers got into some government computer systems in California and Indiana and used ransomware to lock up a database of voter signatures in Georgia, according to the New York Times. Hackers also defaced Trump’s campaign website this week when they briefly took it over.
And security experts warn hackers could try to interfere with the election by knocking out power on Election Day in Milwaukee or another large city in a swing state.
“The primary concern is the targeting of critical voting infrastructure,” said Luke McNamara, a principal analyst for the cybersecurity firm FireEye Mandiant Threat Intelligence.
“Folks should be prepared for more events and news stories coming out through this week and into the next week,” he said, adding that communication is key to keeping the public informed, while also not “overplaying the threat.”
Republican National Committee communications director Michael Ahrens confirmed the group is assisting the state party.
“The RNC never left Wisconsin after 2016 and we are confident that our ground game and the millions we are spending on TV and digital will deliver us another win there in 2020,” Ahrens said in a statement.
The situation emerges after the state Republican Party got itself into a cash crunch in the 2018 campaign when it missed payments to insurers and rang up nearly $600 a month in credit card interest because it didn’t have enough cash on hand. The party spent the first part of 2019 getting its finances back in shape.
Even prior to the alleged attack, the party was operating at a significant financial disadvantage in this election cycle. The party was vastly behind in fundraising to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
Records show the state Republican Party raised a total of $23.7 million in its state and federal accounts since January 2019, meaning the $2.3 million swiped from the party would represent 10% of its overall fundraising haul.
By contrast, the state Democratic Party raised $58.7 million in its state and federal accounts in the past two years.
Cary Spivak, Molly Beck and Daniel Bice of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.