From The New York Times:
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 Federal Bureau of Investigation, some 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’s working. The scheme is making more than $5 million a year, according to computer security experts who are tracking them.
. . . .
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, but 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. And even then, they risk losing all files and data because the best way to remove the virus is to wipe the computer clean.
. . . .
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 United States see messages in English purporting to be from the F.B.I. or Justice Department. In the Netherlands, people get a similar message, in Dutch, from the local police. (Some 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. Some even show footage from a computer’s webcam 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’s impossible for victims to cancel the transaction once it becomes clear that criminals have no intention of unlocking their PC.
Link to the rest at The New York Times
Since the value of the files on an author’s computer can be very high – a manuscript representing months of work – PG advises preventative measures. He is undoubtedly more paranoid than necessary, but here are some suggestions (PG uses them all):
1. Antivirus/Anti-malware software to prevent infections in the first place – Norton is probably the largest-selling program of this type. For Windows users, Microsoft Security Essentials is a high-quality free program.
2. Online backup of your files so you have them even if your computer is hosed – Mozy is easy to use. Install it and the program automatically backs up your files to Mozy servers via your internet connection several times per day. You can try Mozy out free. Prices begin at $5.99 per month for 50 GB. If you have more than 50 GB of data files and don’t want to pay more, you can configure Mozy to back up only the important ones. Dropbox is another excellent program that can be used for backup. If you use more than one computer, in addition to storing your files in the cloud, Dropbox can continuously synchronize files on all your computers so the latest novel draft on your desktop is also on your laptop. If one computer gets zapped by a virus, you can use the files Dropbox has synced on another computer. PG is not your tax advisor, but he expects the cost of Mozy and/or Dropbox service is probably a reasonable business expense for authors who make money from their writing.
3. Local backup of your files as a belt-and-suspenders solution which also lets you restore your files faster than you can with Mozy or Dropbox. You do this by purchasing a cheap large external hard drive like this or this. You plug the hard drive into your computer and install some back-up software. Often hard drives come with their own back-up software. PG has used SyncBack, which comes in free or paid versions, for a long time with good results. If you want two belts-and-suspenders, you can buy two local hard drives and rotate them, giving a friend one drive to keep in a location other than your home or office. You can also use a couple of large-capacity thumb drives like this for more-portable off-site backups.
4. All the backups are not just for protection against viruses and malware, but also cover you if your computer is stolen or if Hurricane Sandy drowns your home or office.