Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Ransomware: Has Your Computer Been Taken Hostage?

stealing dataThe latest hacking nightmare is something called ransomware, where bad guys break into your computer, take your files hostage and demand payment for their safe return.

One particularly nasty actor – CryptoWall – is responsible for hundreds of thousands of kidnappings, netting a total of 30 million dollars in ransom payments.

A recent segment of NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show” was devoted to this growing threat:

“Imagine opening your computer and a ransom note appears on your screen. All of your files are encrypted. To get your files back you must pay hundreds of dollars within one week or all of your data will be lost. Welcome to the shadowy world of ransomware.”

While You Weren’t Looking

Ransomware is stealthy, sinister and insidious. Sometimes the kidnapping occurs when your back is turned. Other times, it happens right under your nose.

Typically, the first indication comes when you try to open a file and find yourself locked out. Or you might get a pop-up “ransom” note. This could come directly from the kidnappers themselves or a phony but seemingly official source like the FBI or a software security site.

Either way, you are given a limited amount of time (seven days or so) to pay a sum of money (usually in the form of bitcoin or some other virtual currency, to avoid tracing and detection) in order to get your data back.

The demand is rarely outrageous. Sometimes it is only ten or twenty bucks. Ransomware works on volume, not price. Tens of thousands of targets are hit simultaneously. Many victims make an economic decision to simply fork over the ransom money rather than incur the hassle and expense of calling the cops or an IT expert.

In exchange for payment, you receive an encryption code to unlock your seized files. Some of the criminals are so brazen they even provide a help-desk to guide you through the payment, decryption and recovery process.

Sheriff’s Department Burned

One high-profile victim – at least among those who have come forward – is a sheriff’s department in Tennessee. An employee clicked on a link that opened a virus, which quickly spread through the department’s network. Fifteen years of sensitive documents like autopsy reports and investigative notes were soon hidden behind an impenetrable wall.

What came next was a pop-up ransom note demanding payment in bitcoins. Included were instructions – which a department spokesperson described as detailed and polite – explaining exactly how and when the “drop” should occur.

The incident was reported to the FBI, which said little could be done, and so the department paid the ransom and recovered their data. A spokesperson called it a “business decision” based on the money and take it would take to reconstruct the purloined data.

How to Protect Yourself

Ransomware generally enters through your email or browser. Once inside, it exploits vulnerabilities in your operating system or tricks users into clicking onto something dangerous.

Some tips to shield your network and data:

  • Use safe passwords. Sure, you’re sick of hearing this advice. But the truth remains that the single most effective safeguard against hackers is a strong password. Some tips: don’t use all letters or all numerals; don’t use words in the dictionary; don’t use birthdates, anniversary dates or your spouse’s maiden name.

  • Change your password regularly. Six-character passwords can be hacked in 3-4 seconds, experts say. A 16-character password that contains a mix of characters can take 3-4 years to hack – and by that time you will have changed it.

  • Install operating system security updates. Raise your hand if you routinely ignore update notices.

  • Install update patches for plug-ins. Hackers are exploiting Adobe, Java and other popular programs that plug into your browser.

  • Back up your data regularly. Archive it by date so you will know how far back to go to recover lost data.

  • Stay smart. Take a CLE on data security. Contact Lawyers Insurance Agency to learn about insurance coverage options.

  • Don’t click on pop-ups or suspicious links. By now, this should go without saying.

Have you had experience with ransomware? What happened and what did you do? Send us a comment.


Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man has practiced in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him at

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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