CryptoLocker. CryptXXX. Enigma. Jigsaw. Petya. Reveton. Shujin. These are the names of just a few strains of ransomware, and a new one seems to pop up every day.
If you haven't heard of ransomware yet, you undoubtedly will soon. Gone are the days when your computer was infected with a virus that slowed it down or made you go to fake webpages. Ransomware doesn't even rest on its laurels while stealing your data. No, ransomware is much more sinister.
The idea behind ransomware is devilishly simple. It infects a computer with malware then encrypts the data on it. The user then gets a screen with a ransom note, demanding payment to decrypt the files.
The first ransomware is believed to have been the AIDS Trojan way back in 1989. This malware infected computers and tossed up a message that licenses for different software had expired. It then encrypted files and only released them after a payment of $189. For what it's worth, Joseph Popp, the creator of the AIDS Trojan, promised to donate money made from it to AIDS research.
Variations of ransomware made appearances over the years, but it really took off with CryptoLocker in late 2013, propelled to prominence by demanding payments in Bitcoin instead of traditional money. The advantage to getting paid in Bitcoins is that Bitcoin transactions are about as anonymous as they can be. It's estimated that CryptoLocker netted about $27 million in a matter of days.
There have been a ton of variations of ransomware since then. There's ransomware that gives you audio instructions, geo-specific ransomware, ransomware that mocks you. One recent development lets the ransomware sit on your computer for a specified amount of time before locking your files so that you can't find a clean backup to restore.
Some ransomware developers even offer tech support. Yes, some cybercriminals offer tech support because they want to make it easy for you to pay. They also want to make sure you get your files back. After all, if it gets out that people aren't able to regain their files after paying a ransom, victims will stop paying the ransoms, and that's just not good for the ransomware industry.
More recently, cybercriminals on the Internet black market have begun selling ransomware kits. You can buy a copy for $3,000, but other enterprising thieves have come up with more affordable ways to sell it. You can buy bundles for $400 or even sign up with an affiliate program, where you and the developer split the ransoms. Developers even offer tech support and code customization. All of this feeds into the rapid proliferation of ransomware. It's a big business.
How big? Try an estimated $325 million in 2015, and that's just from CryptoWall, one of the more pervasive and popular versions. A typical ransomware demand releases your files for a few hundred bucks, and sometimes you can even haggle with your captor.
Ransomware hacks are getting bigger and bolder, however. Three hospitals were infected with ransomware in the last few months. One, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles, paid as much as $17,000. With the proliferation of ransomware and the ability to use it without being a professional computer programmer, as well as higher profile attacks and larger ransoms, you can be sure that ransomware will get worse before it gets better.
Your next question is probably, “How does one get infected with ransomware?” The answer: “Just like you would any other malware.”
It might be an email attachment you shouldn't have opened. Or perhaps you visited an infected website. Maybe you just forgot to apply a patch to some software. As long as you're following best practices when it comes to computer security you should be able to avoid ransomware. Let's be honest though, how many people actually do that? It couldn't happen to you, right?
The frightening truth is that it happens to literally thousands of people a month. It doesn't matter if you're a large company or a mom and pop business. It doesn't matter if you're a student, a librarian, a retail clerk, a CEO or a politician. Cybercriminals don't care who you are. They don't (usually) target specific people, so a victim could be anyone who opens an infected email attachment or who didn't change their router's default password.
That's the lesson to learn from this. Anybody can become the victim of a cybercrime. Your computer files can be held ransom for hundreds of dollars, or your personal info can be stolen and sold on the black market. There's no reason to make it easier for cybercriminals, so follow good sense cybersecurity rules. Here are a few:
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