Imagine, if you will, a door. Through that door is your computer, a device you sat in front of for most of the previous evening in order to finish up a project for work. You are scheduled to make a big presentation on the project in a few hours. As you walk to the computer, you faintly remember the mysterious e-mail you received last night from an address that used to belong to an old high school buddy, but who had not spoken to you in years. You opened the e-mail to find it empty. As you sit down to review the fruits of your labor from the night before, you realize that you cannot open up your presentation. You try to open up some random word documents and are instead greeted with an error message. Something sinister and insidious is happening. After several failed attempts, a message suddenly appears on your screen. You find that you have been locked out of your computer and the only way to unlock it is to pay an amount equal to the cost of the NASA Mars Rover, or else you will never see your documents ever again. Panic slowly sets in as you realize the undeniable truth…you’ve been ransomwared.
This is the situation that many individuals, offices, and even corporations are facing with increasing frequency. Known as ransomware, these buggy offspring of hackers can seize hold of your computer in one of two ways. One version will simply lock you out of your computer: All you will see is a screen completely empty, except for instructions on how to send money or some other form of digital currency to unlock your computer. The second version will quickly lock you out of each of your documents one at a time. In simple terms, ransomware encrypts your documents. This means you can only access your files if you have the key, which you won’t have, but you can bet the hacker will. After you submit to their demands, the hacker will unlock your computer, if you are lucky.
Earlier this year, a hospital in Los Angeles, the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, was hit with ransomware. The virus locked hospital workers out of patient medical records. The hospital ended up forking over the $17,000 demand in order to regain access to their important medical files. This ransom was not paid in cash, per se. Instead, the ransom was paid in bitcoins. The easiest (meaning terrible) explanation of a bitcoin is that it is a type of cryptocurrency, or digital currency. It can be used to buy things electronically. In addition to bitcoins, some hackers will utilize multiple untraceable payment services. Hackers find bitcoins especially attractive since they are so difficult to trace and provide anonymity.
The rate of ransomware attacks is growing exponentially. According to Symantec, an antivirus software company, the number of ransomware attacks went from 100,000 to 600,000 during the year of 2013. Symantec further estimated that a ransomware hacker can earn over $30,000 a day, many earning over $400,000 each month. Not a bad paycheck.
If you are unfortunate enough to fall victim to a ransomware attack, one of the first things you should do is alert the authorities. While police departments may not be able to help much, especially given that they have also been hit by cyber-attacks, the FBI has had some luck in recent years in catching and taking down ransomware networks. Contrary to the usual stubborn thoughts of not giving into a criminal’s demands, the FBI has recommended simply paying the ransomware in some cases. The reason for this is that once ransomware infects the computer and encrypts the digital information, but it is nearly impossible to unlock the encryption without the key. You risk losing everything. Additionally, sometimes the amount requested is actually very small. Of course, some research has shown that those who have paid fines were later hit with future attacks because they were identified as individuals who were willing to give up some cash.
The best way to avoid being put in such a delicate situation is to be smart when opening documents delivered to you by e-mail, or accessing programs on the internet. Simply put, DO NOT open an attachment, file, or program unless you know it came from a trustworthy source. The time to find out what that Nigerian Prince needs in order to earn you millions of dollars is long over.
Copyright © 2016 Kevin Peek