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 GoDaddy.com, 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, www.nameofsite.com, hackers would set up the Web address blog.nameofsite.com, 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.”
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