For my first blog of the New Year I want to go off my regular beat of discussing legal topics to alert readers of a new fear for 2015 – Russians kidnapping your hard drive! There is new breed of criminal trolling the internet that is likely to gain in popularity as the year moves on: Ransomware. If you haven’t heard of it before be thankful. Ransomware is computer software that locks up all your files and then delivers a ransom note: ” Pay $500.00 to unlock your files within five days or the price goes up to $1,000.00″ Often the ransomware will claim you have done something illegal with your PC, and that you are being fined by a police force or government agency. These claims are false and are a scare tactic designed to make you pay the money without telling anyone who might be able to restore your PC.
There are several varieties of ransomware. Some just tell you that a virus ahas hit your hard drive and you must apy for their anti-virus program to clen it up. Others wil hide you desktopicons so all you can see is their message. These are generally fixable through regular malware programs like Malwarebytes. What I am talking about is the third and most serious type – All your pictures, documents, videos, program files etc. become encrypted and inaccessible. The two main purveyors are CryptoLocker and CryptoWall -and there is NO REMEDY for the most complex of these programs.
To make matters worse, the data kidnappers only accept Bitcoin, so a victim has to create a Bitcoin wallet and transfer money into it to pay the ransom. With the heavy fluctuation of Bitcoin value, you may have to make sure to put more than is aksed because if the price drops you wont have enough and then the ransom will go up. You may have to scour the NYC area looking for a Bitcoin ATM (these actually exist) to do a quick deposit.
Law enforcement groups estimate that last year these thieves earned over 30 million dollars in ransom. But isn’t this a crime you ask? Yes indeed it is. It’s called extortion. But good luck getting anyone to do anything about it. These thieves operate out of Russia or other former Soviet bloc countires and are unreachable. In fact, the NYTimes reports today that the Dickson County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee paid a hefty ransom to unlock its 72,000 files, including autopsy reports, witness statements and crime scene photographs. I.T. Professionals cannot figure out how to de-encrypt the files once hit by the software. Even Liam Neeson’s “particular set of skills” won’t help you if you get taken. All you can do is pay up.
Three tips to avoid having this problem: (1) The best defense is to make sure that you have your files backed up onto a cloud program like like Zipcloud, Carbonite or Asigra. Also back up your entire hard drive onto an external hard drive as well. This way if you get hit by one of these criminals you can at least restore your files and ignore the ransom note. My law firm’s servers are automatically backed up and I use an external hard drive to back up my personal computer. I used to do it quarterly but after reading today’s Times article I will do so more frequently. (2) Load a good antivirus and anti-malware program on your computer and update it regularly. (3) Do not open attachments that come in emails unless you are 100% certain of the source. Almost all ransomware is delivered through this method.
As with all new technology, criminals have found a way to make our lives miserable by applying the latest computer software to their nefarious deeds. But with some minor preventative measures you can make yourself immune to their demands and protect your computers from attack. HAPPY 2015!