An Internet scam in which hackers hold computer users’ files to ransom has reached Britain. The con, “Ransomware”, allows criminals to access personal computers and encrypt files with complex passwords.
Once a computer has been infiltrated, the user is powerless to open existing files. Instead, a ransom note appears as a new file instructing the machine’s owner not to contact police.
Helen Barrow, a nurse from Littleborough, Lancashire, is believed to be the first victim in Britain. She was devastated when she found that her computer files had vanished and been replaced by a 30-digit password-protected folder.
Ms Barrow, 40, also discovered a new file, “Instructions how to get your files back”. When she opened it, Ms Barrow was told that she would receive the password in return for a payment for drugs from an online pharmacy.
She called the police and an IT expert who managed to recover some of her data, which included coursework for her nursing degree.
Ms Barrow, a senior sister at Rochdale Infirmary, said: “When I realised what had happened, I just felt sick to the core, I was in shock. It was a horrible feeling and I thought I was going to lose all of my work.
“I had lots of family photographs and personal letters on the computer and to think that other people could have been looking at them was awful.”
Ransomware emerged in the United States this year, prompting fears that it was the start of a new form of cyber crime.
Ms Barrow became a victim when a message appeared on the screen informing her that she had fallen prey to an unnamed virus.
When she clicked on a pop-up box described as an anti-virus program, she inadvertently downloaded the corrupt software.
This particular version of the virus, which tells owners of infected computers to buy pharmaceutical drugs worth at least £40 from an Internet chemist, thought to be based in Russia, is known as Arhiveus.
Earlier incarnations of Ransomware ordered people to pay cash to the hackers through online payment websites such as eGold or Webmoney.
Greg Day, a security expert at McAfee, which markets Internet security systems, said: “We are seeing more of this type of attack in recent months. It is a trend that started off in the business community and has now extended more into the consumer space. We have heard of individuals being targeted by similar blackmail approaches in the past six months.
“If people are to protect against these kind of attacks effectively, we would recommend that they get good anti-virus software, have a firewall that controls what information people can access on their computer and keep up to date with the security patches.
“If people find themselves being blackmailed like this they should contact their local police force.
“They should also contact their software security vendor who might be able to help them to recover their work.”
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