Thanks to Ransomware, Cyber-Stickups are Now a Thing

A participant sits with a laptop computer at a hacker conference - Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A participant sits with a laptop computer at a hacker conference – Sean Gallup/Getty Images

For Internet users, jumping online can be as simple as turning on a light switch. For most of us, we simply hit the power button, or hit the browser application on our smartphone, and we’re there. But along with that access has come an influx of non-traditional threats to our both our privacy and personal information — information that can, in turn, be used by criminals to access our bank accounts, among other things.

With the relative ease of Internet access has come the rise of several malicious types of software and programs. You know the names, like Adware and Malware; nasty stuff that can compromise your machine and your security. But there’s a new threat on the horizon, a method of pulling online stick-ups and extortion normally perpetrated by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

Cyber criminals are seizing your materials, and not letting them go unless you pay a ransom.

Fittingly enough, the rise of ‘ransomware‘ is more than just a threat to individual Internet users — it’s also becoming a major problem for businesses. The Wall Street Journal reports that cybercriminals tend to use ransomware to lock or freeze important files, and then charge a ransom to companies in order to have their files unfrozen, or returned to them.

The trick, however, is that those perpetrating the ransom ask for an amount of money that is small enough that most people or businesses are willing to just fork over the cash to get on with their lives. For example, The Wall Street Journal says that when cyber criminals froze small business owner Mark Stefanick’s business files, he found it easier to just pay them rather than take on what would amount to thousands of hours worth of work to decrypt the files.

“They set the ransom so low that, as violated as I feel and as much as I wanted to fight, at the end of the day I realized I can pay and get back to work,” Stefanick told the WSJ.

Evidently, that’s the trick to pulling off the perfect cyber stick-up: Ask for a ransom that isn’t exactly small, but not big enough that it forces victims to give up. And it’s not strictly an American phenomenon. The Economic Times reports that more than 60,000 cases were reported in India during 2014, with victims being instructed to hand over between $300-500 each time.

With many American companies offloading their IT and tech-related workloads to India and other parts of Asia, there is some reason for concern. And criminals seem to be getting an edge by taking advantage of people’s trusted relationships with their peers through social networks.

“India’s growing social media population proved to be a ready base for cyber-criminals last year, making it the second most targeted country for social media scams,” said Symantec India Director of Technology Sales Tarun Kaura. “Over 80% of these scams were shared manually as attackers took advantage of people’s willingness to trust content shared by their friends.”

The Wall Street Journal says that though many people are willing to give their files up in the event of a ransomware attack, up to 30% of individuals end up paying the ransom to retrieve access to their information. Clearly this is a crime that pays, at least around one-third of the time.

Governments around the world are being targeted as well, and as the threat continues to pick up momentum, the media has begun to alert Internet users of the perceived dangers. Luckily, anti-virus tech companies are also hard at work building countermeasures to protect users in the case of a ransomware attack. Kapersky, for one, developed and released a free decryption tool for a specific piece of ransomware that was recently making the rounds, called CoinVault.

While that is comforting in some respect, the spreading popularity and number of cases involving ransomware has to have many people — and businesses — worried. What it does go to show is how quick and resilient the world of cybercrime truly is. While viruses are now, by and large, a worry of the past, up pops a new method for extorting Internet users.

But again, the good news is that solutions could be just around the corner.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger

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