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When the government, especially the US government, discusses the crime associated with Bitcoin, they usually talk about terrorism and illegal substances. But the truth is, the greatest dangers from crime associated to Bitcoin have nothing to do with terrorism or crime. This is because one of the most common ways Bitcoin is used illegally is by extortion through ransomware.
If you aren’t familiar with the internet crime world, ransomware is a type of malicious software, which, once downloaded to your computer, blocks access to certain programs or files until a fee, or ransom is paid. It does this by using encryption to make the files unreadable. These types of attacks are often carried out using a Trojan, which is a fake file disguised as a real file that you download to your computer. This is why it is so critical to ensure you are only downloading applications from reputable sites on the internet.
While some people who are good with computers can sometimes reverse a ransomware attack, generally, most people don’t know enough about them and simply pay the fee to have their files unlocked. And since the fees are often demanded in Bitcoin, it is very difficult for the FBI to trace the perpetrators of these types of attacks.
As the popularity of the internet grows, so does the number of ransomware attacks, especially as technology becomes increasingly easier to obtain. In the first six months of 2018, there were a recorded 181 million ransomware attacks, which doesn’t include people who were a victim and didn’t report to the government or an internet security company. Currently, ransomware attacks steal around $1.4 billion annually from consumers in the United States alone.
Common apps which are now known to be ransomware are CryptoLocker, which was finally taken down by the US Authorities in June 2014 after receiving over $27 million, and CryptoWall, which was also believed to have amassed $15 million before being shut down by the government.
You may be wondering why these thieves tend to specifically request Bitcoin before unlocking files. And this largely has to do with the fact that Bitcoin is an anonymous currency which is difficult to trace back to the user. But if you are familiar with the space, it is possible to trace Bitcoin addresses back to their owners depending on the wallet, so why don’t these criminals request Zcash or Monero which is much more private than Bitcoin? Well, mostly because Zcash and Monero are much more difficult for the average person to obtain. Bitcoin is a good medium where the funds are somewhat anonymous, while also being easy for the average person to obtain. And many of these criminals have additional tools they use to hide the transaction from the US government. This doesn’t mean they are untraceable however, and as mentioned above, a number of large ransomware attackers have been traced and arrested.
If reading all this is making you a little nervous that a ransomware attack could be around the corner for you, not to fret, as there are several ways you can protect yourself against these sorts of attacks.
Don’t Click on Unknown Links
Everyone gets spam emails from time to time. And the important thing to remember is to never click a link which is sent to you from someone you don’t know. Or if you are sent a link from someone you do know, but it seems out of character for them, don’t click it either. Well really, you just shouldn’t be clicking links unless you understand who they are from and why they are sending them to you.
Don’t Open Untrusted Attachments
Same goes for email attachments. If you aren’t expecting an attachment from someone, and you get an email from them with one, don’t open it until you verify with the person. And never open any attachments which need you to enable macros to see them. This is a sure sign of malicious software.
Don’t Download From Sites You Don’t Know
Although it may be tempting to download that new game you want from a site which is offering it for free as opposed to a site where you have to pay $50, there’s a huge chance that free game is actually malicious software. Stick to downloading only from sites you trust, and remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Don’t Attach Unknown Devices To Your Computer
This one is much rarer than an email or download ransomware attack, but if you find a USB on the street, and think that you’ll be a good citizen by plugging it into your computer to see if you can find the owner, don’t do it. This is another way criminals work to get ransomware on your computer. You’re better off finding a lost and found office to turn it into instead.
Use Cybersecurity Software
The average person probably doesn’t need cybersecurity software to keep their computer safe. But if you are operating a business which holds a lot of private customer data, or other sensitive information, it’s important that you have cybersecurity software installed. There are some companies which offer packages for purchase, or you can often pay a coder to design a program for you—just make sure this coder is reputable and not someone random you find on the internet.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, many companies sent their employees home to work. And this could have numerous implications for the company as far as ransomware attacks go. This is because, when employees work from an office, the WIFI connection is always secure, and the employees may be working on a computer which has their company’s security software installed. But now, with everyone at home on their own WIFI and computers, this has left a gaping hole in a number of company’s security plans, and this could potentially become a field day for cyberattacks. This is why it is so critical to know how to protect yourself against ransomware attacks.
Besides following the above tips to avoid your computer being infected with ransomware in the first place, it’s also important that you don’t send anyone Bitcoin the minute you see the ransom if you are the victim of a ransomware attack. This is because sending anonymous currency doesn’t even guarantee your files will be unlocked. Rather, you should contact the authorities where you live and they can advise you what to do. Because of the rising commonality of ransomware attacks worldwide, there are actually a few companies which offer services to build software to decrypt files which have been ransomed as long as you send them a sample. Which means you may not even have to part with your Bitcoin to recover your files.
Either way, if you’ve been the victim on a ransomware attack, don’t panic, and don’t send your Bitcoin anywhere just yet. Instead, stay calm, contact your company and the authorities and they will help direct you on the path of recovering your files.