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Sextortion Scams & Cyber Blackmail on the Rise

Sextortion scams are on the rise, and cyber criminals are using our discomfort in talking about this subject to continue exploiting us. Because the topic is a bit embarrassing for some, communication and awareness of the scam are sorely lacking. This episode of Sileo On Security is meant to put an end to that.  

Sextortion scams, simply put, are a type of blackmail. In a mass-generated email that feels like someone is watching you (they aren’t), the (s)extortionist most often claims to have photos or videos of you, the victim, in embarrassing situations such as watching adult entertainment on your computer. To put you in a panicked state where you react before thinking, the criminal threatens to send the compromising materials to your entire email address book if you don’t pay a ransom within a short time period. Sex + Extortion = Sextortion. 

At this point, the scammer can take the sextortion scam in several directions. They can try to get you to make an anonymous, untraceable and completely unrecoverable Bitcoin or cryptocurrency payment into their digital wallet. Or, they might request access to your device to help you clean the RAT off of your machine.

Hang on, what’s does a RAT have to do with sextortion scams?

In a new twist on old Sextortion scams, hackers claim to have downloaded a Remote Access Trojan (RAT) onto your system, allowing them to take complete control of the device. With this “control”, they threaten to send out compromised files (e.g., videos of you watching pornography) directly from your computer, making it look like you have sent the embarrassing materials in person.

To increase the credibility of their claims and your level of panic, they often reveal a password of yours within the email that they have supposedly “hacked in the process”. This is completely freaky and makes you feel grossly uncomfortable, like you’ve done something wrong – which is EXACTLY what they want. While the password they reveal may be a bit old, it’s often a password you once used, which gives credence to their legitimacy, putting you in a mindset to pay their ransom demands or otherwise follow their instructions.

You should know that the password they are using was most likely part of an earlier data breach that you were involved with. The password might have been part of the LinkedIn, Anthem, Equifax, Yahoo or other breach from years past. But the result is the same – you feel like you’ve totally been hacked.

To make matters worse and ratchet up the believability of sextortion scams, the “From:” field in the sextortion email has your name and email address in it, making it look like the hacker has in fact gained access into your email program and sent you an email through your own account. This is a simple technique called spoofing, and reinforces suspicions that your machine has in fact been taken over.

Dealing with Sextortion Scams without Losing Your Pants

Here’s what you need to know. Except in very rare cases, everything about sextortion is a complete hoax, including the fact that they have photos or videos on you, that they’ve successfully placed a RAT on your machine or that they can read and record your every keystroke. This is simply a more effective type of scam known as spear phishing, which just means that they are using previously obtained information (like your breached password) to gain your trust, to target you like a spear targeting a fish, before they use it against you.

If you’ve received the email at work, report it to your IT department and follow your organization’s procedures for scam emails. Everyone else should do the following:

  • Be suspicious of all emails, calls, texts or conversations that use fear or embarrassment to get you to act. If you have been in one of my keynote speeches, you’ve already been trained on a B.S. Reflex – a natural tendency to Be Skeptical before you act.
  • Never open any attachments or click on any links that you haven’t first verified as legitimate. When in doubt, delete the email and never respond to it.
  • Never provide personal information unless you can confirm the legitimate source of the request and safe transmission of the data.
  • Turn off and cover your webcam when not in use. I simply place a sticky note over mine and take it off when I am using it.
  • Finally, make sure that any passwords revealed in the email aren’t used on ANY of your online accounts. This is an excellent chance to update any weak passwords in password management software like 1Password, Dashlane or Lastpass.

And most importantly, don’t be ashamed. Cyber criminals are mass mailing sextortion schemes to hundreds of millions of people, playing on one of our greatest fears – that of being publicly embarrassed.

Take a minute to educate someone you care about on email extortion and then check back with Sileo On Security for updates on this and other scams. It’s my goal in life to never let the enemy win.

John Sileo is the award winning author of the newly released mini-book Your Data is Showing: 12 Privacy Tools for the Surveillance Economy. His greatest enjoyment comes from energizing keynote audiences to care about cybersecurity, privacy and cutting-edge tools of information weaponization. Watch him on 60-Minutes, Anderson Cooper, Rachael Ray or on stage. Contact him directly on 303.777.3221.

Ransomware: Cyber Security Expert’s Next Big Threat

Ransomware: A Vital Course on the Next Big Cyber Threat

Ransomware is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: it holds your computer or mobile phone hostage and blackmails you into paying a ransom. It is a type of malware that prevents or limits users from accessing their system and forces its victims to pay the ransom through certain online payment methods in order to grant access to their systems or to get their data back.

It’s been around since about 2005, but earlier this year, the FBI issued an alert warning that all types of ransomware are on the rise. Individuals, businesses, government agencies, academic institutions, and even law enforcement agents have all been victims.

Crowti (also known as Cryptowall), and FakeBsod are currently the two most prevalent ransomware families. These two families were detected on more than 850,000 PCs running Microsoft security software between June and November 2015. Another to take note of is known as Fessleak, which attacks Adobe Flash flaws. It is a “malvertising” trend that pushes fileless exploit into memory and uses local system files to extract and write malware to disk from memory.

How Ransomware Paralyzes Your Computing

There are different types of ransomware. However, all of them will prevent you from using your computer normally, and they will all ask you to do something (pay a ransom) before you gain access to your data. Ransomware will:

  • Lock your desktop or smartphone and change the password or PIN code
  • Encrypt important files so you can’t use them (photos, taxes, financials, My Documents, etc.)
  • Restrict your access to management or system tools (that would allow you to clean the computer)
  • Disable input devices like your mouse and keyboard
  • Stop certain apps from running (like your anti-virus software)
  • Use your webcam to take a picture of you and display it on screen or on a social network
  • Display offensive or embarrassing images
  • Play an audio file to scare you (i.e. “The FBI has blocked your computer for a violation of Federal law.”)

Common Ransomware Demands

  • Generally they demand money in order to unlock your system. Usually, they demand payment through an anonymous payment system like Bitcoin or Green Dot cards, and promise to give you the key if you pay the ransom in time (for example, $17,000 to be paid within 72 hours was the demand given to the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, which had all of it’s life-critical medical records frozen)
  • Sometimes the ransomware shows a “warning from the software company” telling you that you need to buy a new license to unlock your system. Other times, ransomware will claim you have done something illegal with your computer, and that you are being fined by a police force or government agency. These claims are false. It is a scare tactic designed to make you pay the money without telling anyone who might be able to restore your computer and files.

How to Prevent Ransomware Blackmail

The best way to avoid downloading malware is to practice good computer security habits:

  • Create an offsite backup of your files. Seriously, right now. And make it automatic, so that it happens at least once a day. An external hard drive is one option, but be sure to disconnect it from the computer when you are not actively backing up files. If your back-up device is connected to your computer when ransomware strikes, the program will try to encrypt those files, too. If you have a secure cloud back service that encrypts your files before sending, consider using that as an offsite backup.
  • Don’t click on links or open attachments in an email unless you know who sent it and what it is. Instead type the URL of the site you want directly into your browser. Then log in to your account, or navigate to the information you need.
  • Make sure your software is up-to-date.
  • Don’t download software from untrusted sources.
  • Minimize “drive-by” downloads by making sure your browser’s security setting is high enough to detect unauthorized downloads. For example, use at least the “medium” setting in Internet Explorer.
  • Don’t open “double extension” files. Sometimes hackers try to make files look harmless by using .pdf or .jpeg in the file name. It might look like this: not_malware.pdf.exe. This file is NOT a PDF file. It’s an EXE file, and the double extension means it’s probably a virus.
  • Install and use an up-to-date antivirus solution.
  • Ensure you have smart screen (in Internet Explorer) turned on.
  • Have a pop-up blocker running in your web browser.

If you Become a Victim of Ransomware

  • Stop work! TURN OFF YOUR COMPUTER! Shut down your entire network, if possible until help arrives. You can do this by turning off your switches or routers inside of your premises. Ask your IT professional before taking this step if you think that you might be interrupting service.
  • Contact an IT Security firm that can visit your office (or home) in person. Handling this type of problem over the internet is not advised, as it could exacerbate your problem.
  • If you have an offsite backup of your data, have the IT Security firm reinstall your backup and clean it of any ransomware before putting the data and computers back on the network.
  • Alert other people on your network, as any work completed after infection will be overwritten when the backup is restored.

There is conflicting advice regarding paying ransom. Truly, there is no guarantee that paying the fine or doing what the ransomware tells you will give access to your PC or files again. Paying the ransom could also make you a target for more malware. On the other hand, if you have not backed up your files, you may have little choice. Almost 90% of the companies that we have studied as victims of ransomware end up paying the ransom to have their systems unlocked – but only about 50% of them ever receive the unlocking code promised. It’s a gamble, but if you don’t have an off-site backup, it’s probably one you are going to need to take.

John Sileo is an an award-winning author and keynote speaker on identity theft, internet privacy, fraud training & technology defense. John specializes in making security entertaining, so that it works. John is CEO of The Sileo Group, whose clients include the Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security & Pfizer. John’s body of work includes appearances on 60 Minutes, Rachael Ray, Anderson Cooper & Fox Business. Contact him directly on 800.258.8076.