MADISON, Wis. - Hackers have stolen more than $2 million from Wisconsin Republicans. Money the state party had planned to spend between now and the election.
Cybercrimes are on the rise, but the party chairman thinks this attack was motivated by politics.
Politics can be dirty, but in this case, it's criminal.
"It was devastating to find out," Chairman Andrew Hitt said. "We still don’t know if we are going to recover any of the funds. We don’t have much information on any leads."
Chairman Andrew Hitt says he noticed the suspicious activity last week.
Hitt says the hackers used a phishing scheme to manipulate some invoices.
When the party paid those vendors, the money went to the hackers instead.
"This is textbook to a certain degree, but its also new because it targeted political group," Alex Holden said.
Cybersecurity experts say attacks are on the rise, but this case is unique.
the GOP works with many vendors on behalf of many candidates, but Hitt says the hackers only stole money from accounts tied to President Trump’s re-election campaign.
"I can’t draw firm conclusions from that, but it is very intriguing that they would focus on those vendors. It makes you wonder," he said.
A special agent with the Milwaukee FBI, told us he’s not permitted to confirm or deny an investigation, but cyber experts says the FBI is likely working on the case -- and is unlikely to recover the money.
"Probably less than 5%," Sanjay Parikh said. "Usually these are done by international bad actors and its hard to identify who they are, who’s responsible and then prosecute them."
Wisconsin Republicans can’t wait. They are digging deep into their campaign coffers for donors -- and voters.
"The president’s campaign, the RNC, the RPW, we are all in on electing this president," Hitt said.
Hoping their outstanding bills will pay off on Election Day.
State Democrats say they’ve also been the target of more than 800 cyber attacks, according to the party spokesman. At least half of them were for financial gains, yet none were successful.
The attack was discovered less than two weeks before Election Day as both Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden made their final push to win Wisconsin and its 10 electoral votes. Trump won the state by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016 and planned his third visit in seven days on Friday. Biden also planned to campaign in Wisconsin on Friday. Polls have consistently shown a tight race in the state, usually with Biden ahead by single digits and within the margin of error.
Hitt said the stolen money would have been used in the final days of the campaign to make snap spending decisions based on the state of the race.
He said the hackers manipulated invoices from four vendors who were being paid to send out direct mail for Trump's reelection efforts and to provide pro-Trump material such as hats that could be handed out to supporters. Invoices and other documents were altered so when the party paid them, the money went to the hackers instead of the vendors, Hitt said.
The hack was discovered after someone noticed that an invoice was generated that should not have been, he said.
Hitt said it appears the attack began as a phishing attempt. It does not appear that any data was stolen, said party spokesman Alec Zimmerman.
The money was stolen from the state party's federal account, which currently contains about $1.1 million, but that number fluctuates daily because of quick-moving resources late in the campaign, Zimmerman said.
Hitt said he was not aware of any other state GOP being targeted for a similar hack, but state parties were warned at the Republican National Convention this summer to be on the lookout for cyber attacks.
Campaign finance reports filed this week in Wisconsin show Democrats have raised far more money than Republicans. The state Democratic Party raised nearly $59 million over the past two years compared with just $23.7 million for Republicans.
Early voting is in full swing in Wisconsin, with more than 1.6 million ballots returned as of Thursday morning. That is nearly 55% of the total vote cast in 2016.
Republican Party of Wisconsin Chairman Andrew Hitt issued the following statement:
"Cybercriminals, using a sophisticated phishing attack, stole funds intended for the re-election of President Trump, altered invoices and committed wire fraud. These criminals exhibited a level of familiarity with state party operations at the end of the campaign to commit this crime. While a large sum of money was stolen, our operation is running at full capacity with all the resources deployed to ensure President Donald J. Trump carries Wisconsin on November 3rd."