Ransomware viruses originated in Russia circa 2004-2005, but it was not until 2009 that the infection gained notoriety elsewhere in the world. (1)
The virus works via encrypting all data on one’s computer and file sharing networks taking everything in its path hostage. To rescue these files the hapless individual has to pay a ransom to the people who delivered it.
The currency of choice for these transactions is Bitcoin (BTC).
Bitcoin: The Currency for the Discerning Criminal
An in-depth look at Bitcoin (BTC) would extend the length of this article indefinitely. Thus, I advise checking out the “History of Bitcoin” site; where a clever infographic provides an excellent outline. Therefore, a sentence will suffice for now. (2)
BTC was created in 2007 so people can buy and trade in a virtual online currency free of international banking regulations. Indeed, it is regarded as the world’s first decentralized fiscal system.
Nevertheless, like any currency, it is not immune to fraud. The creators of BTC never meant their digital money to be untraceable. Indeed, the beauty of BTC lay in how one’s transactions and amounts were readily tracked online by the BTC community.
Removing your breadcrumbs from the web is extremely difficult at the best of times. When we factor in BTC was developed and endorsed by extremely smart, cyber wise, people acutely aware of potential currency abuse and angry about it, then the criminals and groups creating/using the virus and covering their Bitcoin transactions are very smart. (3)
So much so, the FBI says ransomware crimes are up 700 percent in the past year, and victims have forked out some 27 million USD. (4)
What Happened to “Stand and Deliver”?
The delivery of this viral nasty can be in the form of a straightforward assault (at best) or a vicious Teutoburgerwald style ambush (at worst).
Open frontal attacks take the form of fake emails from a legitimate government agency or a latent link advertising some banal system enhancement.
Most of us web dwellers are familiar with these sorts of swindles (or at least our anti-virus software is – some of the time). Nevertheless, no one is safe from the ambush; for example, a website considered safe may have been hacked unbeknownst to the operators. The advertisements and links on their page then riddled with the worms used to incapacitate a visitor’s PC. (5)
The above happened in October of this year, when an employee at Dickson County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee clicked on a hacked web page. Eventually, the office had to pay out a ransom of some Bitcoins (BTC) approximating some $500 USD. (6) (7)
The same thing happened in Detroit; the city’s entire database was hit for 2000 BTC the equivalent of $80,000 USD. Luckily, they had the wisdom to back up their files and refused to pay any fine. (8)
These two cases are hardly unique, however, they illustrate the insidious nature of the problem now.
How to Stay Safe
Tech savvy people had been aware of ransomware for years and were wise to current strains like Cryptolocker, and Cryptowall before the nasty bugs broke into the big time.
If you are concerned about ransomware, have a chat with any contacts in IT before going online. If the reader wants to keep up the flow, there are some excellent sites like “Krebsonsecurity” “Networkworld” and UK based “The Register”.
In the meantime, make sure you regularly update your anti-virus protection and/or try free versions of programs like Cryptoprevent.
Outside of this protection, engage in boring stuff like consistently backing up your data using non-networked external hard drives, pen drives, or dirty old discs!
If you are an old hand with prevention and viruses, please enrich us with a comment.
References & Image Credits:
(2) History of Bitcoin
(3) Stack Exchange
(4) The Register
(5) Krebs on Security
(6) Coin Desk
(8) Network World
(9) btckeychain via Compfight cc
(10) AVG Technologies via Compfight cc
(11) PC World