Cyber thugs taking data hostage

February 26, 2015 by Glenn Chapman
Like other forms of malicious code, ransomware can get into computers, smartphones or tablets when people click on dubious links or open infected email attachments

Marriage therapist Valerie Goss turned on her computer one day and found that all of her data was being held hostage.

Malicious code referred to as "ransomware" had encrypted her files and locked them away. Cyber criminals demanded $500 in hard-to-trace virtual currency Bitcoin to give her the key. The ransom would jump to $1,000 in Bitcoin if Goss took more than a day to pay.

"I felt shocked; like I had been robbed," the Northern California therapist said. "And, I felt pressed for time to make a rational decision. It felt so surreal."

After online research by her son revealed that in a quarter of more of ransomware cases victims never see their files again even if they pay, Goss refused to pay.

Instead, she bought a new computer and fortified it with security software. She also started backing up data off the machine.

As painful as it was, Goss did the right thing, according to cyber security specialists interviewed by AFP.

"Unfortunately, it is the right thing to do," said Malwarebytes chief executive Marcin Kleczynski.

"If you do pay the ransom, that money is gone and there is no guarantee you will get your data back."

Data kidnappers are taking aim at smartphones and tablets

Kidnapping smartphone files

Ransomware has been around a while, but has been making a big comeback, according to Kleczynski and mobile security researchers at Lookout. Gross fell prey to the hacker tactic last year on the computer she used in her home office.

Data kidnappers are also taking aim at smartphones and tablets, particularly models powered by Google-backed Android software, said Lookout consumer safety advocate Meghan Kelly.

Lookout saw mobile malware "encounters" in the United States jump 75 percent in 2014 as compared with the prior year. Ransomware accounted for a big part of the jump, according to Kelly.

The United States seems to be a preferred target zone, perhaps because people here keep a lot of cherished, personal data on mobile devices and computers, or because they are seen as having the money to pay to get it back.

A US study released last year by Lookout revealed that one-in-three people considered pictures, contacts, and other digital files on mobile devices so precious they would pay to get them back.

Goss said that she was willing to pay the ransom, but had no assurance she would actually see her files again even if she did pony up the Bitcoin.

Like other forms of malicious code, ransomware can get into computers, smartphones or tablets when people click on dubious links or open infected email attachments.

Drive-by attacks

People can also be hit with ransomware at legitimate websites that have been unknowingly booby-trapped by hackers to infect visitors in what are referred to as "drive-by" attacks.

"Sometimes you don't have to do anything wrong, just visit a website that has been infiltrated and then all of a sudden you have a piece of malware on your computer," Kleczynski said.

Ransomware locks and encrypts all files on infected devices. Kleczynski said that ransom demanded typically ranges from $100 to $1,000.

Ransomware targeting mobile devices can lock phones, email and more, essentially stripping control from owners, according to Kelly.

"Ransomware is a pretty loud piece of malware," Kelly said. "It is going to be in your face saying you can't navigate away and we want money from you."

People can protect themselves by being wary of what links they click on or files they open, and by keeping operating software up to date so the latest security patches are in place.

It is also recommended to have security software running to intervene before malware takes root, and to keep back-up copies of files in the cloud or elsewhere in case defenses are breached.

"One day ransomware can hit you and you have to prepare for the worst," Kleczynski said.

"The threat is very serious, users are infected all of the time, and the encryption keys are so strong you can't get those files back."

Malwarebytes and Lookout offer free versions of their security applications.

Explore further: New type of ransomware more sophisticated and harder to defeat

Related Stories

Ransomware no cause for New Year celebration: Sophos

December 16, 2013

(Phys.org) —From operating systems on desktops to software and peripherals on smartphones, information thieves have been clever, inventive and successfully stealthy in finding pathways for stealing personal information. ...

Hackers turning smartphones into slave armies

November 19, 2014

Mobile security firm Lookout on Wednesday warned that Android-powered smartphones or tablets are being targeted with malicious software that puts them at the mercy of hacker overlords.

Ransoms paid by two of every five victims of CryptoLocker

February 28, 2014

New research from the University of Kent has revealed that around 40% of people who fall victim to an advanced form of malware, known as CryptoLocker, have agreed to pay a ransom of around £300 to recover their files.

Google removes Android malware used to secretly mine bitcoin

April 27, 2014

If you own an Android device, your phone might be mining bitcoin without you even knowing it. Five applications were recently removed from the Google Play store after they were discovered to be covertly using Android devices ...

Recommended for you

Cryptocurrency rivals snap at Bitcoin's heels

January 14, 2018

Bitcoin may be the most famous cryptocurrency but, despite a dizzying rise, it's not the most lucrative one and far from alone in a universe that counts 1,400 rivals, and counting.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Doug_Huffman
1 / 5 (1) Feb 26, 2015
Remove the DRM beam from the media eye before you complain of the malware splinter.
rp142
not rated yet Feb 27, 2015
It is rarely computer literate people that end up being a victim to this type of crime, just those that think computing is about using an office program and browsing the internet. Taking steps to protect your security is really not difficult and antivirus software has only ever offered limited protection.

Regularly backups have always been recommended by IT professionals (FYI, I am not in IT at all) and it takes very little effort to do. A backup protect against losses due to hardware failure, lost devices, natural disasters, house fires and many other unplanned events, when properly carried out. It is foolish not to backup and then cry about the consequences later.

Intelligence agencies, law enforcement and some governments are working to undermine our security which will only make lifer easier on those carrying out these attacks.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.