In the late 19th Century, the most sophisticated crime in America was the train robbery – an act portrayed in countless western movies. More than a century later, bandits are still at it, only instead of trains they’re holding up today’s most efficient means of moving money – the Internet.
And instead of six-shooters, Winchester rifles and dynamite, the weapon of choice is software, specifically ransomware, a new breed of computer virus that goes beyond mere annoyance or problematic destruction to weapon of mass extortion.
The pioneering ransomware program Cryptolocker first appeared on Windows-driven computers less than a year ago, in September 2013. Cryptolocker and its copycat program infected computers via emails or other weaknesses and effectively locked them up. Users would then be given instructions on where to send some amount of cash to obtain data keys to unlock their computers and regain access to their critical data.
Fortunately, FBI technology experts, working with private technology security firms and foreign law enforcement agencies, shutdown the huge Cryptolocker network in May, but not before an estimated 400,000 computer users had their files locked up. Though few actually paid the demanded ransom, FBI officials estimated the criminals behind Cryptolocker collected more than $4 million in nine months.
Cryptolocker and Other Ransomware Remains a Threat
Ah, but Cryptolocker is not dead. The software still exists and only needs to establish a new means of transmission and new set of servers and it’ll be back in business soon. And numerous other ransomware programs remain active.
Alhough individuals’ personal computers remain the most vulnerable, corporate computers and networks are prime targets because the data on their computers and networks typically are of high value. Small and midsize companies in particular continue to be prime targets because of data criminals’ perception that such firms lack the technological sophistication, the staff or the budget – or all three – to put up particularly effective defenses around their networks.
Dell SecureWorks recently looked into breadth of the infection of computers and networks by ransomware programs, including the supposedly neutered Cryptolocker, and found 9,798 infected devices, about 50 percent of which are in the United States. Victims include a small-town police department in New Hampshire. And SecureWorks estimates that Cryptolocker itself continues to get about $150,000 a week in extortion payments even after it was supposedly shut down.
How to Protect Yourself Against Internet Bandits
So what can you, as the owner or manager of a small or midsize business with limited technology savvy, support and budget, do to protect your company’s – and your customers’ – data, as well as your hardware?
You really have two choices:
- Take a crash course on network security yourself and become an expert in a matter of days, then spend a bunch of money to protect your technology.
- Engage a group of IT consulting professionals who understand both the technology threat and the peculiar needs and situations faced by small and midsize businesses.
Option No. 2 isn’t free, but it’s probably not as expensive, in the long run, as the do-it-yourself approach. (There are lots of reasons a DIY approach can cost your technology effort.) And it almost certainly will be far, far more effective to get some help. That’s because cyber security is not, to use a medical analogy, a matter of getting an inoculation. There’s no such thing as a one-time shot that will keep your technology ransomware-free forever the way, say, a single shot in childhood can prevent you from ever contracting polio.
Rather, IT security needs to be viewed as an ongoing process. To continue the medical analogies, it should be more like the treatment of a chronic illness. A quick, aggressive course of treatment is required upfront to ensure your company is at an appropriate state of cyber security. But then the patient needs to be monitored regularly and administered maintenance doses of medicine to ward off simpatico diseases, relapse, or the development of later complications.