Hackers hold data hostage in ‘ransomware’ scam

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TAMPA, FL (WFLA) – Hackers are holding data hostage, and demanding ransom for access to your own personal computer files in a scam called “Ransomware.” A local cyber-security expert calls it an epidemic.

“They’re making boatloads of money. This is a very successful criminal business model,” said Stu Sjouwerman, Founder and CEO of KnowBe4, Inc.

Sjouwerman admits it’s a huge problem for businesses in Tampa Bay, but individuals can be targets too. While PC users are more vulnerable, hackers recently successfully targeted Mac computers.

“It’s very evil,” said James Ullery, President of LEDtampa.

Ullery’s company fell victim to Ransomware last year. Files were encrypted and the hackers demanded payment within 12 hours, or the ransom would increase.

Hackers want to be paid in Bitcoin, an electronic currency. The price: $500.

“$500 we felt was far less expensive than the inconvenience of losing your data,” Ullery admits he paid the ransom.

But his files aren’t quite the same. He got the data back, but all the dates were altered to reflect the time the files were restored. And that makes it difficult for him to search for specific projects by date.

Ransomware hackers will give victims their information back, for good reason.

“If their reputation was, these guys don’t give you your files back, they would stop making money,” said Sjouwerman.

He explains Ransomware is designed to get past anti-virus software. It can infect computers through links and attachments in emails, and from malicious ads on websites. Avoid those, and avoid getting infected.

But if you fall victim, there’s only one way to keep from paying hackers. Sjouwerman said have to wipe out your computer’s hard drive and reinstall the operating system.

“You need weapons grade backups, even if you’re just on your own, at the house,” he said.

Without an external hard drive backup, you’ll lose your files for good. That’s why so many people pay.

LEDtampa had backups, but they weren’t current. Now the company backs up all its files at least once a week. But Ullery worries it could happen again.

“It makes you feel somewhat violated, like somebody snuck into your house or your business and they took something that belonged to you,” he said.

He told 8 On Your Side he contacted police when it happened, but didn’t pursue the case because investigators would have needed to keep the computer up to a few weeks.

You can file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center: www.ic3.gov.

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