Viruses just got a whole lot smarter – Welcome to the age of Ransomware

It’s Monday morning and you’re sipping coffee going through your e-mails. An e-mail from Australia Post pops up – “Your Delivery is scheduled for 1:30pm….Please confirm”. For a second, you raise your eyebrows and turn your head “Am I expecting something or is this a trick?”.

Sound familiar?

I’m hoping at this point that you were suspicious enough to realise that Australia Post or any of the major companies generally don’t request users to confirm details by “Clicking here” or alike.

This nifty trick is referred to as “Social Engineering” – An increasingly used exploit that hackers are employing to trick people, gain their trust and exploit a situation.

Social engineering performed by hackers are becoming increasingly complex and have been growing at an unprecedented rate. We are all too familiar with a “rich prince trapped in Nigeria who requires only $5,000” with a promise to transfer $1 million to you upon his release.

Kevin Mitnick, one of the world’s most famous computer hackers stated that computer security has become so complex in recent years that social engineering and gaining a user’s trust have become invaluable. In 1995, Mitnick was arrested for hacking into dozens of computer networks including Pacific Bell and obtaining proprietary software and thousands of credit card details. He was subsequently caught and sentenced to five years in jail. If you are interested in learning more about this notorious hacker and his social engineering methods, check out the movie “TakeDown: The Capture of Kevin Mitnick”

“The key to social engineering is influencing a person to do something that allows the hacker to gain access to information or your network.” Kevin Mitnick

In the last several years, viruses have grown in their complexity. One of the most famous exploits is a type of virus referred to as “Ransomware Viruses” or “Cryptoware Viruses”. These viruses are a type of malware that upon opening such, encrypt all the files on your computer and demand payment for decryption. In other words, you would not be able to use anything on your computer as the files would be locked. The payment is almost always required through BitCoin, making it almost impossible to trace the identity of the criminal sitting behind the virus exploit.Ransomware Viruses Screenshot

Upon payment to these criminals, a secret decryption key is supposed to be sent to you to enter into the virus. Can you trust that you will get the key? Probably not, though I have heard in many situations that payment of such has resulted in decryption of an infected computer’s files.
Users are generally given 72 hours to make a payment upon execution of the virus. Following this 72 hour window, the price for the decryption key doubles. Initial prices for the decryption key can be several hundreds of dollars and through its rate of doubling every 72 hours, can rise to as much as several thousand dollars.

ransomware viruses statistics

Source: Symantec

In 2015, Symantec (one of the world’s leading anti-virus software providers) reported that there were approximately 20,000 to 37,000 ransomware infections occurring each month. In March 2016, this figure rose to 56,000. According to Symantec, 2016 saw the average cost to decrypt ransomware rise to $920 ($679 USD). Oh and in case you’re wondering – yes – this is a huge business and more and more ransomware viruses are being sent out everyday.

So what can I do to prevent this and more importantly, can I avoid paying this fee if I mistakenly open this virus?

There are new software tools out there that are being developed to deceive these ransomware viruses into believing that a payment has been made and a key has been generated – however each virus is a case-by-case basis. New companies have also emerged which attempt to crack the password of a file on a user’s infected machine. However the truth is, it really depends on the type of virus you catch. In some situations, with no viable option, the user may have to simply pay as the level of encryption used by such viruses match those of banks and other highly secure facilities (in other words, extremely difficult to resolve).

How to beat Ransomware Viruses:

Your best bet to stay safe is to make sure that you constantly backup all your files on a regular basis. Using programs such as DropBox or external USB devices on a weekly basis will pay off in the long term if a ransomware virus is unfortunately caught.

If you do encounter such a situation, we highly encourage you to speak to Bondi Computer Guy as soon as possible.