DANVERS — "At first, we thought it was just us," said Kelly DiBacco, co-owner of Beverly's DiBacco Service Center, after her shop's vehicle inspection system stopped working on Tuesday.
Then they learned that it was an issue for all of the vehicle inspection stations in Massachusetts. And that other states were also shutting down their inspection systems.
Applus Technologies, the Wisconsin-based vendor whose computers are part of the annual inspection process, suffered a malware attack this week that forced them to shut down servers — just at the busiest time of the month.
"We would have been extremely busy," said DiBacco.
"Applus Technologies, Inc. detected and stopped a malware attack which has temporarily interrupted the process of conducting vehicle inspections in Massachusetts and other locations," the company said in a press release. "The restoration involves resetting Applus Technologies' IT environment and will take some time to fully restore the functionality of vehicle inspections."
State officials began notifying service station owners on Wednesday and posted tweets online. An update on the state's RMV website also explains the situation, saying that the issue is expected to last through Tuesday.
On Friday, John Levine, the manager at Dave's Mobil in Danvers, said this time of the month is always the busiest, with "probably 30 to 40" inspections a day.
"It's going to be a madhouse when things come back up," said Levine.
"It wouldn't have been that bad mid-month," he said.
Many people, either through forgetfulness or procrastination, wait until the end of the month to get their annual vehicle inspection, while others want to take care of it on the first week of the month just in case something comes up, shop owners say.
That could be one of the reasons why the hackers chose this time to launch their attack.
Levine follows the news and said while few details have been released concerning the Applus hack, he has heard of hospital and government computers being held for ransom by hackers.
Even with the interruption to his business, he said he understands why Applus likely had to take the steps it did. "If you pay them, what stops them from doing it again?" he said.
Until Friday, many of his customers hadn't heard about the situation. "One lady came in," said Levine. "She says she's been to five stations." No one had told her about the statewide shutdown until he did.
"People really worry about it," said DiBacco. "They really don't want to get pulled over."
Under state law, driving without an inspection sticker is considered a moving violation, leading to a fine and an insurance surcharge for three years. In some communities, parking meter attendants can also issue tickets for expired inspection stickers.
To that end, the state Registry of Motor Vehicles has asked police departments to hold off on citing drivers whose stickers expired this week.
Peabody police Capt. Dennis Bonaiuto said his department has instructed officers not to issue any violations for March inspection stickers — though older expired stickers are still subject to a ticket. "That's a little different," he said.
There is no shortage of those older stickers on the road.
DiBacco said she has had customers who stopped commuting to work during the pandemic and either didn't notice the expired sticker or just let it go since they weren't driving.
Besides Massachusetts, inspection stations in Connecticut, New York, Illinois, Georgia, Idaho, Texas and Utah were affected by the Applus hack.
"Unfortunately, incidents such as this are fairly common and no one is immune," said Darrin Greene, CEO of the US entity, Applus Technologies, Inc., in Wednesday's announcement. "We apologize for any inconvenience this incident may cause."
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.