Sheriff warns of 'ransomware'

Software virus will lock your computer and hold it ransom until you pay

BISBEE — Three reports of a “ransom scam” during the past two weeks has prompted the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office to issue a public warning.

“This scam has been in existence for some time and has recently resurfaced in more metropolitan areas,” a press release issued Tuesday morning states. “This scam incorporates a malware virus into your computer and creates significant issues for the victim.”

“Ransomware” begins when a message pops up on the computer screen, informing the user that they have a virus and no longer have access to any of the data files on the machine.

“According to a news report from California, in the past year, hundreds of thousands of people across the world have switched on their computers to find distressing messages alerting them that they no longer have access to their PCs or any of the files on them,” the release states.

The messages claim to be from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, some 20 other law enforcement agencies across the globe or, most recently, Anonymous, a shadowy group of hackers. The computer users are told that the only way to get their machines back is to pay a sizable fine. Authorities estimate this scam generates more than $5 million a year.

Essentially online extortion, ransomware involves infecting a computer with a virus that locks it. The attackers demand money before the computer will be unlocked, but once the money is paid, they rarely unlock it.

In the vast majority of cases, victims do not regain access to their computer unless they hire a computer technician to remove the virus manually. And even then, they risk losing all files and data because the best way to remove the virus is to wipe the computer clean.

Victims in the United States see messages in English purporting to be from the F.B.I. or Justice Department. In the Netherlands, people get a similar message, in Dutch, from the local police. The latest variants speak to victims through recorded audio messages that tell users that if they do not pay within 48 hours, they will face criminal charges. Some even show footage from a computer’s webcam to give the illusion that law enforcement is watching.

The messages often demand that victims buy a preloaded debit card that can be purchased at a local drugstore — and enter the PIN. That way it’s impossible for victims to cancel the transaction once it becomes clear that criminals have no intention of unlocking their PC.

Researchers at Symantec, a reputable antivirus software maker, said they had identified 16 ransomware gangs. They tracked one gang that tried to infect more than 500,000 PCs over an 18-day period. But even if researchers can track their Internet addresses, catching and convicting those responsible can be difficult. It requires cooperation among global law enforcement, and such criminals are skilled at destroying evidence.

Victims become infected in many ways. In most cases, people visit compromised Web sites that download the program to their machines without so much as a click. Criminals have a penchant for infecting pornography sites because it makes their law enforcement threats more credible and because embarrassing people who were looking at pornography makes them more likely to pay. Symantec’s researchers say there is also evidence that they are paying advertisers on sex-based sites to feature malicious links that download ransomware onto victims’ machines.

“As opposed to fooling you, criminals are now bullying users into paying them by pretending the cops are banging down their doors,” said Kevin Haley, Symantec’s director of security response.

More recently, researchers at Sophos, a British computer security company, noted that thousands of people were getting ransomware through sites hosted by, the popular web services company that manages some 50 million domain names and hosts about five million websites on its servers.

Sophos said hackers were breaking into GoDaddy user accounts with stolen passwords and setting up what is known as a subdomain. So instead of, say,, hackers would set up the Web address, then send emails to customers with the link to the subdomain which — because it appeared to come from a trusted source — was more likely to lure clicks.

Scott Gerlach, GoDaddy’s director of information security operations, said it appeared the accounts had been compromised because account owners independently clicked on a malicious link or were compromised by a computer virus that stole password credentials. He advised users to enable GoDaddy’s two-step authentication option, which sends a second password to users’ cellphones every time they try to log in, preventing criminals from cracking their account with one stolen password and alerting users when they try.

One of the scarier things about ransomware is that criminals can use victims’ machines however they like. While the computer is locked, the criminals can steal passwords and even get into the victims’ online bank accounts.

Security experts warn to never pay the ransom. A number of vendors offer solutions for unlocking machines without paying the ransom, including Symantec, Sophos and F-Secure. The best solution is to visit a local repair shop to wipe the machine clean and reinstall backup files and software.

“Don’t be a victim,” Sheriff Mark Dannels states in the sheriff’s press release. “Report anything of a suspicious nature to your local law enforcement agencies.”

Sumtingwong on Tue, 02/05/2013 - 11:04am

Year old news, only affects users that don’t have an anti-virus program.

Kaybee on Tue, 02/05/2013 - 12:24pm

This does affect those computer users who have anti-virus and internet
protection, even regularly updated programs. If you don’t want to pay a
computer technician to unlock your computer, there are several YouTube videos
that provide detailed instructions in how to remove the virus. It takes about
five minutes and your data is not lost.

Johann on Tue, 02/05/2013 - 12:50pm

@Sumtingwong, The concept of ransomware is more than a year old but it has
just recently began to really show itself in the wild. Never write anything
off as old news when it comes to the realm of computer security… Also,
that’s an invalid assumption when it comes to anti-virus programs. It
requires the user to ensure it is maintained (updated/patched) with the most
recent definitions from the vendor, which can be only done through a paid
subscription. Most home users receive a free AV program when they purchase
their PC that never gets renewed. Furthermore, most default installations do
not have the right level of heuristics configured to catch new/emerging
threats for which a valid definition/signature has not been developed to
protect the subscriber. Best way to protect yourself from browser-based
attacks is to have an updated AV, client-based firewall as well as some sort
of proxy/web filtering tool(s) to weed out the bad. Only having AV is a false
sense of security IMHO.

Sumtingwong on Tue, 02/05/2013 - 2:36pm

Oh, so it is just begining to show itself in the wild? Do the hackers go to
MapQuest, to see if your computer is in the wild, or an urban area? I didn’t
assume anything.

SomewhereIn85635 on Tue, 02/05/2013 - 6:01pm

*On a similar note, was at Mall the other day with phone using verizon data
plan. Did not realize it was receiving wi-fi signal in mall area. *I am NOT
on Cox Cable for internet at home. *While at mall rec’d a DMCA warning
stating **my** “Cox High Speed Internet has been identified as “streaming”
some movie in Hindu” and to call a specific number and input code. It locked
down all internet on my (verizon) phone while I was in that area. Data
intercept page gone when I returned home. No, I did not call the phone number
and input the “code”. Kinda a data-phising scam and reminiscent of the old
“dial these numbers (land-line) when I hang up , I guess.

Sumtingwong on Tue, 02/05/2013 - 6:28pm

The sheriff is making believe he is doing something. What is the next warning
he is going comment on next week, when three more residents from the county,
do something stupid? Are we all supposed to call the sheriff, when our
computer gets a virus, because we clicked on a link that we knew nothing
about, or failed to protect our computers, with an anti-virus program?

SomewhereIn85635 on Tue, 02/05/2013 - 9:39pm

Perhaps, a warning about trolls?

Johann on Wed, 02/06/2013 - 8:24am

@Sumtin, Didn’t say it was beginning to show itself in the wild because yes,
the concept of ransomware is not new. You did make the assumption that having
AV makes you safe. It does not. Also, the Sheriff is doing a public service,
as a public servant to warn the public. Not every warning has to be something
that deals with the physical protection of the citizens. If you try to recoup
your money for any case of Fraud, a police report is necessary. Dial away
folks. @Somewhere, If you have an Android device, Norton has some products
that you can install on it to protect the phone. With how smart cellphones
are becoming (mini-PCs), it is easier for spammers/scammers to send commands
to the devices like they would a normal PC. The products I would recommend is
Norton’s AV as well as Norton Halt. There are a few other products you can
look into and install at your own whim. Make sure on the AV, you launch the
App after installing to actually initiate the protection features.

Johann on Wed, 02/06/2013 - 10:19am

I didn’t mean for it to seem like it is something that is brand new, never before seen. It is an old concept (ransomware) but it is beginning to take new forms. Before, it used to be you would get a message that your machine is infected and to pay to download/install this AV program to clean your machine. The concept is old, the ways to do it are new.

Failed to clarify the above in my first and second posts.

Sumtingwong on Wed, 02/06/2013 - 10:45am

You gave the readers more usefull information than the sheriff. But to call
him hoping you will get your money back, if you have been a victim of fraud
by internet hackers, is a waste of time. The FBI can’t track and prosecute
them. And to expect someone that can’t find the meth labs in his county to

SomewhereIn85635 on Wed, 02/06/2013 - 2:27pm

Thank you, Johann for your constructive comment and advice

Johann on Thu, 02/07/2013 - 2:16pm

@Sumting, If you are a victim of fraud, you are still required to file a police report and provide that information to your financial institution. It makes the process much quicker to recoup your funds, if possible (although unlikely since you willingly gave your financial information).

However, it can help protect you by requesting your bank put a fraud alert out on your account(s) to watch for suspicious activity. The “bad guys” behind these schemes still need to use some sort of financial institution to get their money. If anything, your bank can go to the payee’s bank…to try and get you your money back. It never hurts to try.

@Somewhere, Anytime. :)

Piper on Mon, 07/21/2014 - 9:14am

OK, first off, although you have the very best computer security going you
can still be fooled and tricked into exposing your system via other methods
that go beyond compromised websites. Nothing is 100% and useful, there is
always risk. The Sheriff isn’t doing anything wrong with his warning and
although I could pick his little article to death if I had a grudge against
him, to what end? His article serves it’s purpose, to remind and warn people
within his jurisdiction that they should put some effort into at least making
it a little harder, and more importantly how to react properly so that your
damage is lessened. That is what people should be getting out of the
Sheriff’s message.

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