NATIONWIDE — Federal agencies are warning that a wave of data-scrambling extortion attempts from cybercriminals is impacting our nation’s health care systems with the potential to affect patient care in the middle of a global pandemic.

What You Need To Know

  • Feds: Cybercriminals using viruses to prevent hospitals from accessing information

  • Agencies are urging hospitals not to pay a ransom to unlock their information

  • Last ransomware attack happened in September, targeted nationwide hospital chain

With less than a week to go now before Election Day, cybersecurity leaders say the timing is worrying. But there's no immediate indication that these cyberattacks were motivated by anything other than profit, they say.

The FBI and other federal agencies issued a joint statement Wednesday night, warning about the “increased and imminent” threat of cybercrime attacks to health care providers and hospitals.

One cybersecurity leader said it's “the most significant cyber security threat we’ve ever seen in the U.S.”

Federal authorities say the cybercriminals are using software called "ransomware" in attacks to disrupt health care services already straining during the pandemic. These attacks scramble the data on health care information systems, turning that information into gibberish that can only be unlocked by using software codes provided only after the target — in this case, a hospital or health care provider — pays up.

Security experts warn that this type of attack has already hobbled at least five hospitals in the U.S. this week, with the potential to impact hundreds more.

Now, the federal investigators are urging hospitals not to pay the ransom to unlock their data and are sending out instructions on how to help minimize the risk of attack.

This is not the first time ransomware attacks have targeted the nation’s health care systems. In September, a ransomware attack hit all 250 of Universal Health Services's facilities. UHS owns hospitals nationwide, including a number of behavioral health service facilities in the Orlando area and Titusville, Florida. The resulting computer outages created chaos for those providers, forcing doctors and nurses to rely on paper backup systems.

While the timing of this most recent attack so close to our election is concerning, cybersecurity leaders said there's no immediate indication that these cybercriminals were motivated by anything other than profit.