Kidnappers used to make ransom notes with letters cut out of magazines. Now, notes simply pop up on your computer screen, except the hostage is your PC.
In the past year, hundreds of thousands of people across the world have switched on their computers to find distressing messages alerting them that they no longer have access to their PCs or any of the files on them.
The messages claim to be from the FBI, 20 other law enforcement agencies across the globe or, most recently, 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.
And, curiously, it is working. The scheme is making more than US$5 million a year, according to computer security experts who are tracking them.
The scourge dates to 2009 in Eastern Europe. Three years later, with business booming, the perpetrators have moved west. Security experts say that there are now more than 16 gangs of sophisticated criminals extorting millions from victims across Europe.
The threat, known as “ransomware,” recently hit the US. Some gangs have abandoned previously lucrative schemes, like fake anti-virus scams and banking trojans, to focus on ransomware full time.
Essentially online extortion, ransomware involves infecting a user’s computer with a virus that locks it. The attackers demand money before the computer will be unlocked, once the money is paid, they rarely unlock it.
In the vast majority of cases, victims do not regain access to their computer unless they hire a computer technician to remove the virus manually. Even then, they risk losing all files and data because the best way to remove the virus is to wipe the computer clean.
It might be hard to fathom why anyone would agree to give hundreds of dollars to a demanding stranger, but security researchers estimate that 2.9 percent of compromised computer owners take the bait and pay. In some countries, the payout rate has been as high as 20 percent.
That people do fall for it is a testament to criminals’ increasingly targeted and inventive methods. Early variations of ransomware locked computers, displayed images of pornography and, in Russian, demanded a fee — often more than US$400 — to have it removed. Current variants are more targeted and toy with victims’ consciences.
Researchers say criminals now use victims’ Internet addresses to customize ransom notes in their native tongue. Instead of pornographic images, criminals flash messages from local law enforcement agencies accusing them of visiting illegal pornography, gambling or piracy sites and demand they pay a fine to unlock their computer.
Victims in the US see messages in English purporting to be from the FBI or the US Department of Justice. In the Netherlands, people get a similar message, in Dutch, from the local police, while Irish variations even demand money in Gaelic.
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. Footage from a computer’s Webcam has also been used 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 PIN. That way it is impossible for victims to cancel the transaction once it becomes clear that criminals have no intention of unlocking their PC.