Tallahassee church victim of 'Zoombomb' as hackers get hold of service stream

By: Jacob Murphey | WCTV Eyewitness News
April 6, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- A Tallahassee church, like so many across the world, tried to take their Palm Sunday service online, offering the congregation an interactive experience through the wildly popular Zoom video conferencing app.

But, just minutes into Sunday's service, the pastors at The United Church in Tallahassee were horrified; a hacker had joined the chat, posting offensive material.

Reverend Brenda Dowell and her husband, Reverend Mark Dowell, say it was the church's first time using Zoom to hold a service.

They say they thought they had read enough to know how to safely hold the video chat, but unwanted guests joined, broadcasting music with racial slurs, disturbing messages and at one point, pornographic video.

The couple tells WCTV they were in shock and couldn't believe anyone would do something like this.

"My husband just started screaming, 'Shut it down, shut it down,' and we just closed the whole meeting down," Rev. Brenda Dowell said. "It was a horrific experience. We were very emotional after it all, really were in tears about it. It was very hurtful and the congregation; it really impacted them a lot."

But their faith family provided much-needed comfort.

"We are so blessed to have such a loving and caring congregation," Dowell said. "They sent us so much support after that."

Tech expert and CEO of Aegis Business Solutions Blake Dowling is using Zoom for his employees right now. He has followed the software's bumpy past, but said it's doing a remarkable job for new technology.

"With any new technology, you're going to have a learning curve, you're going to have disruption, hackers and cyber criminals try to misuse technology," Dowling said. "In Zoom's case, it happened so fast, people weren't ready for what happened.'

The Dowells were able to record the rest of the service and get it online for parishioners; they filed a report with police, but don't think that will accomplish much.

Meanwhile, they're still determined to beef up security and conduct Zoom services this week. Unlike last week, the service won't be open to everyone- a far different stance for the usually welcoming congregation.

"As people of faith, we feel like we're a beacon of light, and we wanted to shine that light," Dowell said.

Florida Attorney Ashley Moody released a consumer alert on Monday regarding "Zoombombs," saying schools and churches should avoid posting links on social media.