Terrifying New Malware That Takes Over Your Computer and Blackmails You for Cash

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Oct. 9 2012 4:04 PM

Pay Up or the Hard Drive Gets It

What you need to know about ransomware, hackers’ latest trick to take over your computer and blackmail you for cash.

Ransomware.
A ransomware attack

Screenshot.

You’ve just opened a Web page or clicked a link in an email when your computer’s desktop goes gray. A browser window pops up with the FBI logo in the top left corner. Below it is a live webcam feed with a picture of someone’s face. You try to click away but find that your browser is locked. With a start, you recognize the face staring at you from the screen: It’s you.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

This isn’t the plot of a Japanese horror film. It’s a frightening form of malware called “ransomware” that has been seen with increasing frequency in recent months. No one knows exactly how many people have been hit with it, but security firm McAfee reports that it recorded more than 120,000 new samples in the second quarter of 2012, a fourfold increase from the same quarter last year.

There are many variants of ransomware, all of which begin by locking you out of your own machine. The next phase: trying to blackmail, intimidate, or otherwise spook you into forking over cash. You probably shouldn’t do it. But it’s easy to see why a lot of people do.

Advertisement

The version I described in the first paragraph is the product of a virus called Reveton, which you can contract either by clicking a malicious link or visiting an infected website, which triggers an automatic download. Beneath the video feed, which registers the surprise on your face as you recognize yourself, are your computer’s IP address and hostname and an urgent message: “Your computer has been locked!” Scroll further and you’ll find yourself accused of possessing illegally downloaded files in violation of federal copyright laws. (A new iteration claims that you’re in violation of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act—which, as serious netizens know, never actually became law.)

The crime, you’re told, is punishable by a fine or up to three years in prison. There’s only one way to unlock your computer, according to the warning on your browser, and that’s to pay up. And if you don’t pay the specified “fine” within 48 or 72 hours—often by purchasing a prepaid cash card such as Green Dot’s Moneypak, which makes the transaction hard to trace—it claims that you’ll be locked out of your machine permanently and face criminal charges to boot.

The criminal charges are bogus, of course, but the threat of being permanently locked out of your files is real, says Chet Wisniewski, senior security adviser at the data-security firm Sophos. Some victims have reported that, after a certain amount of time passed, their files were in fact deleted. On the other hand, it’s unclear whether paying up actually helps, or if it just prompts the bad guys to try to squeeze more out of you. One thing security experts do know is that the scam appears to be automated. It would be a mistake to assume there’s an actual human on the other end whom you can persuade to take it easy on you because you really, really need those files.

Other types of ransomware do without the webcam scare tactic but ratchet up the stakes in other ways. Sophos’ Graham Cluley told me that his friend’s elderly parents were hit by a version that claimed to have found child pornography on their computer. They knew they hadn’t downloaded any such thing. Still, they were tempted to follow the instructions on screen rather than face the mortification of explaining the situation to their children or the police.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.