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Sep 16

Ransomware Getting More Targeted, Expensive

I shared a meal not long ago with a source who works at a financial services company. The subject of ransomware came up and he told me that a server in his company had recently been infected with a particularly nasty strain that spread to several systems before the outbreak was quarantined. He said the folks in finance didn’t bat an eyelash when asked to authorize several payments of $600 to satisfy the Bitcoin ransom demanded by the intruders: After all, my source confessed, the data on one of the infected systems was worth millions — possibly tens of millions — of dollars, but for whatever reason the company didn’t have backups of it.

This anecdote has haunted me because it speaks volumes about what we can likely expect in the very near future from ransomware — malicious software that scrambles all files on an infected computer with strong encryption, and then requires payment from the victim to recover them.

Image: Kaspersky Lab

What we can expect is not only more targeted and destructive attacks, but also ransom demands that vary based on the attacker’s estimation of the value of the data being held hostage and/or the ability of the victim to pay some approximation of what it might be worth.

In an alert published today, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned that recent ransomware variants have targeted and compromised vulnerable business servers (rather than individual users) to identify and target hosts, thereby multiplying the number of potential infected servers and devices on a network.

“Actors engaging in this targeting strategy are also charging ransoms based on the number of host (or servers) infected,” the FBI warned. “Additionally, recent victims who have been infected with these types of ransomware variants have not been provided the decryption keys for all their files after paying the ransom, and some have been extorted for even more money after payment.”

According to the FBI, this recent technique of targeting host servers and systems “could translate into victims paying more to get their decryption keys, a prolonged recovery time, and the possibility that victims will not obtain full decryption of their files.”


Today there are dozens of ransomware strains, most of which are sold on underground forums as crimeware packages — with new families emerging regularly. These kits typically include a point-and-click software interface for selecting various options that the ransom installer may employ, as well as instructions that tell the malware where to direct the victim to pay the ransom. Some kits even bundle the HTML code needed to set up the Web site that users will need to visit to pay and recover their files.

To some degree, a variance in ransom demands based on the victim’s perceived relative wealth is already at work. Lawrence Abrams, owner of the tech-help site BleepingComputer, said his analysis of multiple ransomware kits and control channels that were compromised by security professionals indicate that these kits usually include default suggested ransom amounts that vary depending on the geographic location of the victim.

“People behind these scams seem to be setting different rates for different countries,” Abrams said. “Victims in the U.S. generally pay more than people in, say, Spain. There was one [kit] we looked at recently that showed while victims in the U.S. were charged $200 in Bitcoin, victims in Italy were asked for just $20 worth of Bitcoin by default.”

In early 2016, a new ransomware variant dubbed “Samsam” (PDF) was observed targeting businesses running outdated versions of Red Hat‘s JBoss enterprise products. When companies were hacked and infected with Samsam, Abrams said, they received custom ransom notes with varying ransom demands.

“When these companies were hacked, they each got custom notes with very different ransom demands that were much higher than the usual amount,” Abrams said. “These were very targeted.”

Which brings up the other coming shift with ransomware: More targeted ransom attacks. For the time being, most ransomware incursions are instead the result of opportunistic malware infections. The first common distribution method is spamming the ransomware installer out to millions of email addresses, disguising it as a legitimate file such as an invoice.

More well-heeled attackers may instead or also choose to spread ransomware using “exploit kits,” a separate crimeware-as-a-service product that is stitched into hacked or malicious Web sites and lying in wait for someone to visit with a browser that is not up to date with the latest security patches (either for the browser itself or for a myriad of browser plugins like Adobe Flash or Adobe Reader).

But Abrams said that’s bound to change, and that the more targeted attacks are likely to come from individual hackers who can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars a month renting exploit kits.

“If you throw your malware into a good exploit kit, you can achieve a fairly wide distribution of it in a short amount of time,” Abrams said. “The only problem is the good kits are very expensive and can cost upwards of $4,000 per month. Right now, most of these guys are just throwing the ransomware up in the air and wherever it lands is who they’re targeting. But that’s going to change, and these guys are going to start more aggressively targeting really data intensive organizations like medical practices and law and architectural firms.”

Earlier this year, experts began noticing that ransomware purveyors appeared to be targeting hospitals — organizations that are extremely data-intensive and heavily reliant on instant access to patient records. Indeed, the above-mentioned SamSAM ransomware family is thought to be targeting healthcare firms.

According to a new report by Intel Security, the healthcare sector is experiencing over 20 data loss incidents per day related to ransomware attacks. The company said it identified almost $100,000 in payments from hospital ransomware victims to specific bitcoin accounts so far in 2016. Continue reading →

Feb 14

Florida Targets High-Dollar Bitcoin Exchangers

State authorities in Florida on Thursday announced criminal charges targeting three men who allegedly ran illegal businesses moving large amounts of cash in and out of the Bitcoin virtual currency. Experts say this is likely the first case in which Bitcoin vendors have been prosecuted under state anti-money laundering laws, and that prosecutions like these could shut down one of the last remaining avenues for purchasing Bitcoins anonymously.

michaelhackfeedbackWorking in conjunction with the Miami Beach Police Department and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office, undercover officers and agents from the U.S. Secret Service’s Miami Electronic Crimes Task Force contacted several individuals who were facilitating high-dollar transactions via, a site that helps match buyers and sellers of the virtual currency so that transactions can be completed face-to-face.

One of those contacted was a user nicknamed “Michelhack.” According to this user’s profile, Michelhack has at least 100 confirmed trades in the past six months involving more than 150 Bitcoins (more than $110,000 in today’s value), and a 99 percent positive “feedback” score on the marketplace. The undercover agent and Michelhack allegedly arranged a face-to-face meeting and exchanged a single Bitcoin for $1,000, a price that investigators say included an almost 17 percent conversion fee.

According to court documents, the agent told Michelhack that he wanted to use the Bitcoins to purchase stolen credit cards online. After that trust-building transaction, Michelhack allegedly agreed to handle a much larger deal: Converting $30,000 in cash into Bitcoins.

Investigators had little trouble tying that Michelhack identity to 30-year-old Michell Abner Espinoza of Miami Beach. Espinoza was arrested yesterday when he met with undercover investigators to finalize the transaction. Espinoza is charged with felony violations of Florida’s law against unlicensed money transmitters — which prohibits “currency or payment instruments exceeding $300 but less than $20,000 in any 12-month period” — and Florida’s anti-money laundering statutes, which prohibit the trade or business in currency of more than $10,000.

Police also conducted a search warrant on his residence with an order to seize computer systems and digital media. Also arrested Thursday and charged with violating both Florida laws is Pascal Reid, 29, a Canadian citizen who was living in Miramar, Fla. Allegedly operating as proy33 on, Reid was arrested while meeting with an undercover agent to finalize a deal to sell $30,000 worth of Bitcoins.

Documents obtained from the Florida state court system show that investigators believe Reid had 403 Bitcoins in his on-phone Bitcoin wallet alone — which at the time was the equivalent of approximately USD $316,000. Those same documents show that the undercover agent told Reid he wanted to use the Bitcoins to buy credit cards stolen in the Target breach.

Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) and at the University of California, Berkeley and keen follower of Bitcoin-related news, said he is unaware of another case in which state law has been used against a Bitcoin vendor. According to Weaver, the Florida case is significant because is among the last remaining places that Americans can use to purchase Bitcoins anonymously.

“The biggest problem that Bitcoin faces is actually self-imposed, because it’s always hard to buy Bitcoins,” Weaver said. “The reason is that Bitcoin transactions are irreversible, and therefore any purchase of Bitcoins must be made with something irreversible — namely cash. And that means you either have to wait several days for the wire transfer or bank transfer to go through, or if you want to buy them quickly you pay with cash through a site like” Continue reading →