Ransomware is a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid. When the ransomware is installed on a device, it encrypts the files on the device and displays a message that demands payment in exchange for the decryption key that is needed to unlock the files. Ransomware attacks can be particularly damaging to individuals and businesses because they can disrupt access to important data and systems, and they can be costly to remedy. It is important to protect your devices and systems from ransomware by keeping your software and antivirus programs up to date and being careful about the emails and links that you open.
(Editor’s note: in case you hadn’t noticed, this is another guest post from ChatGPT. I’m going to keep posting these, but they will always be clearly labeled as ChatGPT’s work. You can play around with the chatbot yourself, but you’ll need to create an OpenAI account first.)
Phishing is a type of cyber attack that involves the use of fraudulent emails or websites that appear to be legitimate in order to trick people into revealing sensitive information such as passwords, credit card numbers, and account login details. These attacks often use social engineering techniques to manipulate people into taking action, such as clicking on a malicious link or opening an attachment. Phishing attacks can be difficult to identify because they are designed to look legitimate and can be highly targeted, making them a common and effective method used by cybercriminals to steal sensitive information.
(Editor’s note: This is a guest post by ChatGPT, a chatbot launched by OpenAI in November 2022. I asked it the question “What is phishing?”, and it generated the text above. I verified the response as accurate.)
Web sites that make their money from advertising usually subscribe to one or more advertising providers, such as Google Adsense. There are many others, including some that push ads that are really just scams.
One popular type of scam ad takes the form of a malware warning, presented to the unsuspecting user in a full-screen web page that seems to lock out the user completely. The example above (provided recently by a client) appears to be from Microsoft, generated by Windows anti-malware software, and it includes what is supposedly a Microsoft phone number.
It’s important to understand that legitimate anti-malware software won’t ‘lock’ your computer when it detects malware, and it won’t insist that you call a phone number.
If you see one of these scary-looking screens, don’t panic. Obviously, don’t call the phone number shown on the screen. Nothing good will come from that. Try pressing the F11 key on your keyboard. This is the near-universal key that toggles full screen view in web browsers. If it is just a web page, pressing F11 will reveal your web browser’s user interface, and you should regain your bearings immediately. Close the tab, and/or close the browser.
Also, please reconsider visting any web site that’s operated by people who care so little for visitors that they are willing to inflict this kind of dangerous garbage on them, albeit indirectly.
I just received a text message from someone pretending to be a representative of the Liberal Party of Canada.
The message, sent via SMS to my mobile phone from a phone number in Toronto, offers a monetary reward for being vaccinated for COVID-19, and invites the recipient to click a link to liberalparty-assist[dot]com. Here it is:
If you receive this message, or anything similar, please do not click the provided link. I can’t be sure what will happen, but it won’t be good.
While I avoided clicking the phishing link, I did look into the site it points to. The domain is actually owned by a provider in Paris, France: M247-LTD-Paris. Definitely not anything to do with a political party in Canada. The phone number has been reported numerous times as a scam source.
Since the majority of Canadians have been vaccinated, this phishing message seems likely to attract many clicks from unsuspecting people. Sadly, that will include people who desperately need the money, as well as older folks and others who may not be as technically astute as the rest of us.
Some day it may be possible to track down the people responsible for these scams. I enjoy dreaming up interesting forms of punishment for these people.
Major events are viewed as opportunities by scammers worldwide. Same as it ever was. These days, the scammer’s tools of choice involve computers, because the potential victim pool is far beyond any alternative.
In keeping with this sad reality, COVID-19 scams are showing up everywhere on the web, and in our email inboxes.
Please exercise caution when you receive email or visit web sites that advertise cures, or entice you to click links or open attachments claiming to provide COVID-19/Coronavirus help.
If you’re looking for legitimate information about COVID-19, visit the web sites of major health organizations and local governments.
If you have an email address, and you’ve ever used it to register for online services and sites, there’s a good chance you’ve received email that threatens you in some way, and some of it is downright creepy.
This email may refer to your name. It may include a password you’ve used in the past, or even currently. The email may appear to have been sent from your own email address, and may claim to have taken over that email account.
The good news is that very little of what these emails claim is actually true. The bad news is that you still have a problem.
But why does this happen?
It all starts when someone gets careless, or someone else decides that the IT budget is too high.
Imagine that you’re the person responsible for information security at any company that… uses computers (so basically, any company on the planet). Now imagine that you’re bad at your job. Or disgruntled. Or your manager keeps cutting your budget. Inevitably, things start to slide. Security updates don’t get installed. Software that isn’t properly checked for security implications gets installed on company computers. Users don’t get security training. Bad decisions are made, such as not properly encrypting user passwords. And so, the company’s computers, and the data they contain, become vulnerable. Eventually, malicious people figure this out, and through various means — many of which are trivially simple to carry out — gain access to your data. And that data includes information about your customers. That information is then sold online, to other, even less scrupulous people. Brian Krebs documents many of these breaches; here’s one example.
You can find these lists online if you know where to look. Some are only accessible from the dark web. Some are published more brazenly, on easily-accessed public web sites, including Facebook.
Sometimes these lists contain passwords. In really awful cases, the passwords aren’t even encrypted. But usually they are encrypted, which makes them slightly less useful. Only slightly, because many people still use terrible passwords: common passwords, like 1234; passwords that are used by the same person in multiple places; and passwords that are easy to crack.
Any password can be cracked, by which I mean converted from its encrypted form to its original, unencrypted form. Short and simple passwords can be cracked in nanoseconds. Longer, more complex passwords take longer. At any given point in time, passwords that are long and complex enough simply can’t be cracked quickly enough to be worth the attempt. This is a moving target. As computers get faster, the point at which a password becomes worth cracking gets nearer.
These shady lists of users, passwords, and email addresses can be used for lots of things, ranging from merely irritating to criminal. But there’s money to be made, as long as you don’t care about being a world-class asshole.
If you’re an asshole, and you’re looking for an easy way to make money and irritate people, just shell out a few bucks for one of these lists, and download a few scripts that turn that list into spam. Because computers are really good at things like this, you hardly have to do any actual work. Just feed a list into some crappy script, sit back, and watch the money pour in. If you had to do this with paper and snail mail, it clearly would not be worthwile.
A user’s story
Let’s look at this another way: from the perspective of Iam Notreal, an ordinary Internet user. Iam registered for an account at LinkedIn in 2011 using his real name and his NopeMail account, firstname.lastname@example.org. He also used the same password he uses everywhere else: banana1234.
In 2012, intruders gained access to LinkedIn servers and were able to download its user database. The database included usernames, email addresses, and poorly-encrypted passwords. Now Iam’s real name, real email address, and an encrypted form of his one and only password are on a list, and, beginning in 2016, that list is being sold on the dark web to anyone who has a few bucks to spare.
In 2016, Iam starts getting spam to his NopeMail account. Most of it is ordinary spam: poorly-worded appeals to click a link. Occasionally he receives spam that mentions his real name, which is alarming, but not particularly harmful. At some point, Bill tries to ‘unsubscribe’ from what he believes is a mailing list, by replying to one of these spam emails. Congratulations, Iam, you’ve just graduated to a new list, of confirmed, valid, active email addresses. This list will also be sold on the dark web, at a higher price than the original list.
Meanwhile, other dark forces are at work behind the scenes. Someone runs the original list through a widely-available password cracker. This software looks at each encrypted password and attempts to decrypt it based on a set of parameters, including lists of commonly-used passwords. Sadly, Iam’s password is rather short, and contains a common word, and it takes the software about a nanosecond to crack it. Now Iam is on an even more valuable list, which includes cracked passwords.
Fast forward to 2018, and now Iam is getting email that claims to have taken over his email account, or to have video from Iam’s own webcam showing him doing unmentionable things, and it also includes Iam’s one and only password, right there in plain text. Iam is panicked: if the sender knows his password, are the rest of the claims true? He doesn’t know it, but the sender’s claims are bullshit.
As scary as this sounds, it’s only the most common use of lists like these circa late 2018, early 2019. The same information could be used to take over Iam’s LinkedIn account (if he ignored warnings from LinkedIn to change his password, or if he changed it back to the same password), take over his NopeMail account (if he failed to change its password after the LinkedIn breach), or take over any other account that can be found on any other service he uses, once it’s discovered.
Why is that spam coming from my own email address or my own mail server?
Unfortunately, it remains trvially easy to spoof almost all information contained in an email message. Current anti-spam efforts like SPF, DKIM, and DMARC are focused on validation, and there’s nothing stopping anyone from spewing out email with mostly-forged headers. That includes the FROM header, which means scammers can make email look like it came from just about any address they want. Only close inspection of all the headers reveals the actual source.
Why does that spam contain my password?
If a scammer has access to a purloined user list that includes plaintext or cracked passwords, it’s a simple matter of customizing the content of their malicious spam so that the username and/or password vary, depending on the unlucky recipient.
What you should do
Stop using crappy passwords. If you’re not sure how crappy your password is, check it at howsecureismypassword.net. You can also install this extension in your Chrome browser; it will warn you if your password is too weak.
Stop re-using passwords. If site A is hacked, and your password for site A is the same as for site B, you’ll have to change your password on both sites.
Use a password manager. Yes, it’s annoying to have an extra step whenever you want to log in somewhere, but using a password manager means that you only ever have to remember one password. They can also generate passwords for you, saving you the trouble.
Check Have I been pwned to see how many breaches have included your email addresses and passwords.
Sign up at Spycloud to continuously monitor your email address for inclusion in breaches.
Although there are ways to use purloined user lists besides spam, most of the damage we see is related to email.
Despite being really old technology, email has continually improved in terms of security. Newer technologies like SPF, DKIM, and DMARC make it much easier for email providers to determine which email is legitimate and which is not.
You can help by making sure any email domains you manage use SPF, DKIM, and DMARC. If your mail provider doesn’t use these technologies, lean on them to start. If they resist, find another provider. I have several clients who use the business mail service provided by telecom giant Telus here in Canada. Telus farms this work out to a provider in the USA called Megamailservers. The Megamailservers service does not currently support DKIM or DMARC, and there’s nothing on their web site (or that of Telus) about any plans to change that.
Password Management Software
So, everyone should use a password manager. But wait, didn’t I just read that all the most popular password managers can be bypassed very easily? Yup. Opinions vary as to whether the risk of such exploits is significant. From my perspective, the risk is this: yes, a malicious actor needs physical, remote, or programmatic access to your computer to use these exploits. But once they have access, they no longer have to waste time looking for interesting information. All they need to do is look for password manager data and sent it to themselves. That makes their job MUCH easier.
But using a password manager is still much safer than not using one.
Have you been getting a lot of scam phone calls lately? I sure have. On both the land line and my business cell phone. Some callers claim that I’m being sued by the government or that I’m under investigation. Others want me to think there’s something wrong with my computer and that they have the only fix.
I’m pretty good at spotting these scams, and for me, they’re sometimes entertaining, but usually just annoying. For some people, especially elderly folks with little technical knowledge, these calls can be a horrible trap.
If you use Google search (and really, who doesn’t?), you’ve probably noticed the big warnings that appear when you try to click on some search results. That’s Google Safe Browsing (GSB), protecting you from a malicious web site.
GSB flags sites that fail to comply with Google’s Malware, Unwanted Software, Phishing, and Social Engineering Policies.
To get rid of the warning, the owner of a site flagged by GSB must remove objectionable content and resubmit the site for verification in Google Search Console. Until recently, this process could be repeated indefinitely.
To counter repeat offenders, Google has changed the way GSB works. If a web site repeatedly fails to comply with Google’s Safe Browsing policies, it will be flagged as such, and the warning users see will appear for at least 30 days.
In the announcement for this change, Google points out that the new repeat offender policy will not apply to sites that have been hacked (i.e. changed without the owner’s permission).
Ransomware is different from other kinds of attacks because of the potential damage. It can render all your data permanently inaccessible. Even paying the ransom is no guarantee that you will get all your data back intact. Other types of attacks typically try to fly more under the radar: trojans and rootkits want to control and use your computer’s resources; and viruses want to spread and open the door for other attacks. While other types of attacks can be fixed by removing the affected files, that doesn’t work for ransomware.
Like other types of attacks, ransomware first has to get onto your computer. These days, simply visiting the wrong web site can accomplish that. More common vectors are downloaded media and software, and email attachments. Preventing malware of any kind from getting onto your computer involves the kind of caution we’ve been advising for years; ransomware doesn’t change that advice.
What CAN make a big difference with a ransomware attack is limiting its reach. Once on a computer, ransomware will encrypt all data files it can access; specifically, files to which it has write access. Ransomware typically runs with the same permissions as the user who unwittingly installed it, but more insidious installs may use various techniques to increase its permissions. In any case, limiting access is the best safeguard. For example, set up your regular user so that it cannot install software or make changes to backup data.
Here’s a worst-case scenario: you run a small LAN with three computers. All your data is on those computers. Your backup data is on an external hard drive connected to one of those computers, and a copy exists on the Cloud. For convenience, you’ve configured the computers so that you can copy files between them without having to authenticate. Once ransomware gets onto one of the computers, it will encrypt all data files on that computer, but it will also encrypt data it finds on the other computers, and on the external backup drive. Worse still, some ransomware will also figure out how to get to your cloud backup and encrypt the data there as well.
How to limit your exposure? Require full authentication to access computers on your LAN. Use strong, unique passwords for all services. Store your passwords in a secure password database. Limit access to your backup resources to a special user that isn’t used for other things. In other words, exercise caution to avoid getting infected, but in case you get infected anyway, make sure that you have walls in place that limit the reach of the ransomware.
People who store Slack credentials in Github code repositories learned that this a bad idea, as researchers demonstrated the ease with which this information can be gathered without any explicit permissions.
The Nuclear exploit kit is still operating, despite recent, partially-successful, efforts to shut it down. Researchers showed that the kit is still being used, and may be involved in recent ransomware infections.
Zero-day exploits are on the rise, doubling from 24 in 2014 to 54 in 2015. A zero-day exploit is a hack that takes advantage of software vulnerabilities before the software’s maintainers have had a chance to develop a fix.
Cisco security researchers identified vulnerabilities in several enterprise software systems, including Red Hat’s JBoss. As many as three million web-facing servers running this software are at risk of being infected with ransomware, and in fact as many as 2100 infected servers were identified.
April’s issue of the SANS ‘Ouch!’ newsletter is titled “I’m Hacked, Now What?” (PDF) and provides helpful information for the recently-hacked. The newsletter is aimed at regular users, so it may not be particularly useful for IT professionals, except as a means to educate users.
The wildly popular WhatsApp – a messaging application for mobile devices – now has end-to-end encryption. This will make life more difficult for spy agencies who want to know what users are saying to each other. But WhatsApp users should be aware that this does not make their communications invulnerable, since techniques exist to get around full encryption, such as keystroke loggers.
Bad idea: someone at CNBC thought it would be a good idea to ask users to submit their passwords to a web-based system that would test the passwords and report on their relative strength. The service itself was vulnerable, and exposed submitted passwords to network sniffing. The service was taken offline soon after the vulnerability was identified.