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Ransomware Is a Real Threat (Even to You, Apple Users)

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Maybe the thought actually occurred to you that something was “phishy” about that link, but that’s so 30 seconds ago. You clicked and now your computer screen is locked. Behind that frozen screen lie your personal files — everything from photos to tax documents — all of it encrypted by a third party that promises to return access for a ransom, which is usually between $200 and $5,000, according to the FBI.

Encryption can be a tool for good and evil. It’s the safest way for an enterprise to keep information safe from prying eyes and sticky fingers, but unfortunately it’s relatively easy for a hacker — and not even a very clever one — to use it to force an ugly situation: your files are encrypted and can only be unlocked by the thief.

A recent newsworthy item takes its lead from the popular “Saw” horror series. If you get hit with this one, Billy the Puppet from the franchise pops up on your screen with the message: “I want to play a game with you.”

Think that invitation from Billy the Puppet sounds fun? Before you go looking for the jigsaw ransomware, also known as BitcoinBlackmailer.exe, let me assure you that it’s not. There are different versions, but they all say pretty much the same thing: “Your computer files have been encrypted. Your photos, videos, documents, etc….But, don’t worry! I have not deleted them, yet. You have 24 hours to pay 150 USD in Bitcoins to get the decryption key. Every hour, files will be deleted. Increasing in amount every time. After 72 hours all that are left will be deleted.”

If you get the jigsaw ransomware, don’t panic. As ZDNet (my source for the above script) points out, a company named Forcenet already solved the problem with simple reverse-engineering. According to those at Forcenet, “A genius malware author this is not, the use of C#/.NET makes it trivial to reverse engineer and analyse.”

Not Just an Inconvenience & Not Just a PC Problem

The point here is not whether or not a particular ransomware poses an extinction-level threat. Ransomware attacks are on the rise. According to Symantec’s 2016 Internet Security Threat Report, “crypto-style ransomware grew 35% in 2015.” In this report, Symantec warns that this often profitable approach, while adept at ensnaring PC users and branching out through network-connected devices, is increasingly targeting, “smartphones, Mac and Linux systems.”

In plain English: ransomware is a danger for anyone using a network-connected device. A former NSA employee recently released a tool for Mac users called RansomWhere, which detects when files are being encrypted on an Apple device and allows the user to stop it. That’s notable because, until now, most Apple users have been relatively unscathed by ransomware.

How People Are Affected by Ransomware

While many ransomware attacks are fixable, they can be embarrassing. A number of the links that get people “got” involve sites you wouldn’t want your mother — or spouse, or child — to think were part of your regular Internet diet, or sites that would suggest you’re about to go into personal bankruptcy. Ransomware crooks use various hot-button clickbait to lure victims.

But do you know what’s worse than being embarrassed by a public airing of what piques your curiosity? A lot of things are, but when it comes to ransomware, at the top of the list has to be the increasing risk for more serious kinds of fallout as hospitals are being more frequently targeted by this form of attack.

In February, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center was hit by ransomware. The incident got a great deal of attention because instead of risking patients’ lives, the hospital decided to pay the ransom, which was about $17,000 — or 40 bitcoins. Another hospital was hit in Kentucky, but they only had to pay a ransom of 4 bitcoins, according to internet security reporter Brian Krebs. MedStar Health was also a victim of ransomware, with employees reporting, “a pop-up on their computer screens stating that they had been infected by a virus and asking for ransom.” MedStar owns 10 hospitals and 250 out-patient facilities in Maryland and D.C.

TrendMicro, a company that focuses on internet content security software and cloud computing security, recently predicted “2016 will be the year of online extortion.” If ever there was a time to be careful out there, it was last year. And the year before that, and the one before that, too, but also: tomorrow. Tomorrow is still really not the sort of thing that’s conducive to a good night’s sleep, because the underlying message here is that you are going to get got. Being informed is your best defense.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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