Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Slate

October 11, 2012

Slate: Pay up or the hard drive gets it

You've just opened a Web page or clicked a link in an email when your computer's desktop goes gray. A browser window pops up with the FBI logo in the top left corner. Below it is a live webcam feed with a picture of someone's face. You try to click away but find that your browser is locked. With a start, you recognize the face staring at you from the screen: It's you.

This isn't the plot of a Japanese horror film. It's a frightening form of malware called "ransomware" that has been seen with increasing frequency in recent months. No one knows exactly how many people have been hit with it, but security firm McAfee reports that it recorded more than 120,000 new samples in the second quarter of 2012, a fourfold increase from the same quarter last year.

There are many variants of ransomware, all of which begin by locking you out of your own machine. The next phase: trying to blackmail, intimidate or otherwise spook you into forking over cash. You probably shouldn't do it. But it's easy to see why a lot of people do.

The version I described in the first paragraph is the product of a virus called Reveton, which you can contract either by clicking a malicious link or visiting an infected website, which triggers an automatic download. Beneath the video feed, which registers the surprise on your face as you recognize yourself, are your computer's IP address and hostname and an urgent message: "Your computer has been locked!" Scroll further and you'll find yourself accused of possessing illegally downloaded files in violation of federal copyright laws. (A new iteration claims that you're in violation of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act - which, as serious netizens know, never actually became law.)

The crime, you're told, is punishable by a fine or up to three years in prison. There's only one way to unlock your computer, according to the warning on your browser, and that's to pay up. And if you don't pay the specified "fine" within 48 or 72 hours - often by purchasing a prepaid cash card such as Green Dot's Moneypak, which makes the transaction hard to trace - it claims that you'll be locked out of your machine permanently and face criminal charges to boot.

The criminal charges are bogus, of course, but the threat of being permanently locked out of your files is real, says Chet Wisniewski, senior security adviser at the data-security firm Sophos. Some victims have reported that, after a certain amount of time passed, their files were in fact deleted. On the other hand, it's unclear whether paying up actually helps, or if it just prompts the bad guys to try to squeeze more out of you. One thing security experts do know is that the scam appears to be automated. It would be a mistake to assume there's an actual human on the other end whom you can persuade to take it easy on you because you really, really need those files.

So what should you do if you're unwary and unlucky enough to contract a ransomware Trojan? First, instructs Sophos' Paul Ducklin in a helpful video, don't panic and don't do anything rash. Once the malware has control of your machine, chances are that most of the damage has already been done. In theory the hackers could mine your files for private information, but in practice they rarely do. Too much effort for an uncertain reward.

And ignore those threats not to tell anyone about the attack. Unless you're an expert yourself, it's a good idea to enlist the help of a computer security expert to help you figure out how to handle it. The FBI - the real FBI - also recommends filing a complaint at www.ic3.gov.

As with most forms of malware, the best protection here is simply to avoid visiting compromised websites or clicking on any suspicious-looking links, whether on the Web or in emails, Twitter or Facebook messages, or even Skype messages. Keeping your operating system and apps updated with the latest security patches always helps, and antivirus software can be an additional prophylactic. But this particular type of attack also reinforces the importance of backing up your files. Otherwise, you might never see them again.

It's conceivable, some security types admit privately, that paying up could prompt the criminals to restore them. But the official advice is that you never should, and in most cases that's the advice that makes the most sense.

 

1
Text Only
Slate
  • American sunscreens need an upgrade

    The last time a new sunscreen ingredient came on the U.S. market, the Y2K bug was threatening to destroy our way of life. Intel had just introduced the Pentium III processor, featuring an amazing 500 MHz of computing power.

    April 24, 2014

  • Celebrity quack moms are a terrible influence on everyday parents

    On April 15, the actress Alicia Silverstone released a book called "The Kind Mama: A Simple Guide to Supercharged Fertility, a Radiant Pregnancy, a Sweeter Birth, and a Healthier, More Beautiful Beginning." It's chock-full of attachment parenting lessons and dangerous misinformation.

    April 24, 2014

  • Cuba is running out of condoms

    The newest item on Cuba's list of dwindling commodities is condoms, which are now reportedly in short supply. In response, the Cuban government has approved the sale of expired condoms.

    April 23, 2014

  • Cats outsmart the researchers

    I knew a lot had been written about dogs, and I assumed there must be at least a handful of studies on cats. But after weeks of scouring the scientific world for someone - anyone - who studied how cats think, all I was left with was this statement, laughed over the phone to me by one of the world's top animal cognition experts, a Hungarian scientist named Ádám Miklósi.

    April 23, 2014

  • The top 12 government programs ever

    Which federal programs and policies succeed in being cost-effective and targeting those who need them most? These two tests are obvious: After all, why would we spend taxpayers' money on a program that isn't worth what it costs or helps those who do not need help?

    April 23, 2014

  • Do White Castle prices tell us anything about the minimum wage?

    The paper looked at how many delicious steamed sliders the minimum wage has been able to purchase over time. The point is that as it notes, in 1981, the $3.35 minimum could buy a whole dozen. Today, at $7.25, it could purchase just 10.

    April 22, 2014

  • Do your genes make you procrastinate?

    Procrastinators, in my experience, like nothing better than explaining away their procrastination: General busyness, fear of failure, and simple laziness are just a handful of the excuses and theories often tossed around. Now researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have added another option to the list: genetics.

    April 22, 2014

  • The case for separate beds

    The other night I slept on a twin bed in the guest room of the house I share with my husband and our two kids.
    It was the best night's sleep I've had in years.

    April 18, 2014

  • Allergies are the real midlife crisis

    One of the biggest mysteries is why the disease comes and goes, and then comes and goes again. People tend to experience intense allergies between the ages of 5 and 16, then get a couple of decades off before the symptoms return in the 30s, only to diminish around retirement age.

    April 16, 2014

  • treadmill-very-fast.jpg Tax deduction for a gym membership?

    April marks another tax season when millions of Americans will deduct expenses related to home ownership, children and education from their annual tax bill. These deductions exist because of their perceived value to society; they encourage behaviors that keep the wheels of the economy turning. So why shouldn't the tax code be revised to reward preventive health?

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

AP Video
Business Marquee
College Sports
Pro Sports
Facebook