Cochise County Sheriff’s Office personnel are investigating three cases of a “ransom scam” reported in the past two weeks. This scam has previously existed and has recently resurfaced in more metropolitan areas. It incorporates a malware virus into a user’s personal computer, or PC, and creates significant issues for the victim.
The scam begins when something that appears to be a ransom note pops up on unsuspecting computer users’ screens, except the hostage is the user’s PC.
According to a news report from California, in the past year, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have switched on their computers to find distressing messages stating they no longer have access to their PCs or files.
The messages claim to be from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, other law enforcement agencies across the globe or, Anonymous, a shadowy group of hackers. The computer users are told that the only way to get their machines back is to pay a steep fine. Sadly, this scam is working reportedly making more than $5 million a year, according to computer security experts tracking them.
The threat, known as ransomware, recently hit the United States.
Essentially online extortion, ransomware infects a user’s computer with a virus that locks it. The attackers demand money before the computer will be unlocked, but once the money is paid, they rarely do so.
In the majority of cases, victims do not regain access to their computer unless they hire a computer technician to manually remove the virus. Even then, they risk losing all files and data because the best way to remove the virus is to wipe the computer clean.
Victims in the United States see messages in English purporting to be from the F.B.I. or Justice Department. The latest variants speak to victims through recorded audio messages that tell users that if they do not pay within 48 hours, they will face criminal charges. Some even show footage from a computer’s webcam to give the illusion that law enforcement is watching.
The messages often demand that victims buy a preloaded debit card that can be purchased at a local drugstore — and enter the personal identification number. That way, it is impossible for victims to cancel the transaction once it becomes clear that criminals have no intention of unlocking their PC.
Victims become infected in many ways. In most cases, people visit compromised Web sites that download the program to their machines without so much as a click. Criminals frequently infect pornography sites because it makes their law enforcement threats more credible and because embarrassing people who view pornography makes them more likely to pay. Symantec’s researchers say there is evidence that they are paying advertisers on sex-based sites to feature malicious links that download ransomware onto victims’ machines.
Recently, researchers at Sophos, a British computer security company, noted that thousands of people were getting ransomware through sites hosted by GoDaddy, the popular Web services company that manages some 50 million domain names and hosts about five million Web sites on its servers.
Sophos said hackers were breaking into GoDaddy users’ accounts with stolen passwords and setting up what is known as a subdomain. So instead of, say, www.nameofsite.com, hackers would set up the Web address blog.nameofsite.com, then send emails to customers with the link to the subdomain which — because it appeared to come from a trusted source — was more likely to attract victims.
With ransomware, criminals can use victims’ machines however they like. While the computer is locked, the criminals can steal passwords and even get into victims’ online bank accounts.
Security experts warn to never pay the ransom. A number of vendors offer solutions for unlocking machines without paying, including Symantec, Sophos and F-Secure. The best solution is to visit a local repair shop to wipe the machine clean and reinstall backup files and software.
Report anything of a suspicious nature to local law enforcement agencies.
(Background information received from a 12-6-2012 “New York Times” article.)