Media Information: Ransomware Netting Cyber Criminals Millions of Dollars a Year
“This operating system has been locked for security reasons.” Many online users are still being confronted with similar messages to this.Malware called ransomware is to blame. The scam works by using malware to disable the victims’ computers until they pay a ransom to restore access. Cybercriminals often use social engineering tricks, such as displaying phony messages purporting to be from local law enforcement, to convince victims to pay up. Messages often include warnings such as, “You have browsed illicit material and must pay a fine.”

A rise in ransomware
Norton by Symantec,  has witnessed an increase in the amount of professional cyber gangs using ransomware in the last two years. This fraudulent activity, designed to take over your computer and blackmail you for cash, has developed in the following ways:

  • After first emerging in Russia and Eastern Europe in 2009, ransomware has spread to Western Europe, the US and many other countries, causing high infection rates and a great deal of frustration for consumers.
  • Professional cybergangs use intelligent malware which, once on your computer, identifies which country you live in (via your IP address) and presents the message in the local language with a logo of a local public authority.
  • The ransomware completely disables the device and is designed so that it seems that the only way to restore functionality is to pay the fine. This raises the chance of the consumer being tricked to pay the ransom.
  • Different variants of malware are being developed, and within those variants criminals vary the code slightly to help the malware get past security software. One of the most serious variants was detected 500,000 times in  18 days.

$33,600 in one day
Symantec experts analysed how criminals monetise the scheme. In the month-long period the experts studied one specific attack in more detail. 2.9 per cent of compromised users paid out. This may seem like a small percentage, but it pays off for the criminals:

  • During the month 68,000 computers were infected: the equivalent of 5,700 every day
  • Ransomware typically charges between $60 to $200 to unlock the computer
  • On a single day, 2.9 per cent or 168 users paid the ransomware, permitting the criminals to potentially earn$33,600; which means the criminals could have made up to  $394,000 in one month.

However, given the number of different malware variants and criminal gangs operating ransomware attacks, an estimated $5 million is being extorted from victims per year.

Additional facts:

  • Ransomware is predominantly found on suspicious websites, and arrives either via a “drive-by download”, stealth download or through a user clicking on an infected advert. Some distribution via email has also been seen.
  • Ransomware has had a high impact in France, Germany, the UK as well as in the US during 2012.
  • Messages are evolving over time. Cybercriminals use different hooks to defraud innocent users (social engineering). Early variants used a locked screen containing pornographic images to shame users into paying the fine, and are now using law enforcement logos.
  • Techniques have become more and more sophisticated with code built into ransomware programs to tailor messages to the right language and local law enforcement logo for example.
  • Even if a person does pay the ransom, the cybercriminals often do not restore functionality. The only reliable way to restore functionality is to remove the malware.

Tips on how to prevent infections by ransomware:

  • Have security software installed and most importantly up to date with a current subscription. Remember with the thousands of new malware variants running every day, having a set of old virus definitions is almost as bad has having no protection.
  • Make sure all the software on your system is up to date. This includes the operating system, the browser and all of the plug-ins that a modern browser typically uses. One of the most common infection vectors is a malicious exploit that leverage a software vulnerability. Keeping software up to date helps minimize the likelihood that your system has an exposed vulnerability on it.
  • Make sure you are leveraging the full set of protection features delivered in your security product. Symantec and Norton products include five distinct layers of protection: Network (Intrusion Prevention), File (traditional AntiVirus, Reputation (Insight), Behavioral (SONAR) and Repair (ERASER and Norton Power Eraser).