The Akron Beacon Journal Betty Lin-Fisher column

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

There’s a new nasty computer virus growing by the day and arriving just in time for the crush of online holiday shopping.

It comes in the form of a fake shopping email.

Akron’s chief information officer, Rick Schmahl, warns consumers about “CryptoLocker.” This virus is in a category called “ransomware,” where scammers literally lock up your system until you pay their “ransom.”

Another similar “ransomware” is called the FBI Moneypak. The virus starts with a message that the computer user has been involved in illegal activity (such as downloaded and/or distributed copyrighted material, or the viewing of child pornography, among the allegations). There is a demand of a payment of $100 or $200 to unlock the system.

The CryptoLocker is worse, said Steven Sundermeier, president of Medina-based Internet security firm ThirtySeven4 LLC.

“It’s a pretty nasty little booger,” Sundermeier said. The virus not only hits the initial computer and encrypts all files and data, but if the computer is part of a network, such as at an office, it will infect shared computers and render them useless.

“It’s a huge business for these virus authors behind the CryptoLocker. If they get infected, a user will have 72 hours to pay what amounts to a $300 ransom,” Sundermeier said.

In some cases, even after payment, people don’t get all of their files back, he said.

Scammers change the virus daily and try to thwart authorities by changing website domains, Sundermeier said. Schmahl said there have been some reports that authorities have been able to isolate some of the IP addresses.

Last week, criminals upped the ante. The ransom could go over $2,000 if people don’t pay the $300 within 72 hours. Sundermeier said a sophisticated online code is promised to be given for that price.

“There’s not really a fix. It’s all about prevention,” he said.

The virus reinforces the need for up-to-date antivirus protection and backing up important files to a system that is not connected to your computer, Sundermeier said. That includes an antivirus program that is more than a free scanner online, but a trusted antivirus that takes preventative measures, he said.

While CryptoLocker has been spread through social media and networking sites, the primary source seems to be “phishing” emails that appear to come from a legitimate store or website.

Schmahl warned that consumers will be getting emails imitating such retailers as Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart and others. Promises of free shipping, coupons and other bait can lure you into clicking a link to retrieve the code or coupon, which initiates the virus or malware, Schmahl said.

So how do you know whether an email is legitimate?

One way to know is if you signed up for email notifications from a store. Those typically have a standardized type or look that should be recognizable, Sundemeier said. But phishing scams can still look legitimate, so before you click on anything, hover over it with your mouse and examine the Web address.

“Don’t just click on links at random,” he said.

Schmahl and Sundermeier also stress the importance of backing up your important files or your computer, so that if you do get infected by this virus or others, you can restore your computer without having to deal with the criminals. The two have slightly different advice, but it boils down to doing some sort of backup of your files is better than not doing anything at all.

Sundermeier said he feels it’s not necessary to back up your whole computer, including your operating system. Rather, he said, back up your critical files that you can’t afford to lose, such as Word documents, Excel files, photos and music. Sundermeier said it’s important to back them up to an external hard drive — and make sure not to keep that hard drive connected to your computer. That way, it will not be infected if the computer gets a virus or to an online or cloud-based service.

Schmahl said he takes a more detailed approach and backs up his whole computer on an external drive once a month. He has a few external hard drives and rotates the drive with each backup. He said he keeps one hard drive outside his house, in case there would be a fire or disaster.

“Something’s better than nothing. I’m looking at it from the point of view of you’re only as good as your last backup” and you could spend all day reinstalling an operating system and programs without a backup, Schmahl said.

Asked about the idea of people being victimized by the CryptoLocker, Schmahl said: “I don’t endorse supporting criminals, but I know I have my stuff backed up. If somebody doesn’t have their stuff backed up and loses all their pictures and music, maybe they feel that’s the only thing they have. But they shouldn’t expect miracles. You’re dealing with criminals.”

It’s possible that if authorities are successful in tracking the criminals down and stopping them, that they won’t be around to send the fix after you paid, he said.

Donation warning

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is reminding consumers to be cautious when responding to requests for donations to help those affected by the typhoon in the Philippines.

•Research before you contribute. Go online to www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov to determine if an organization is registered in Ohio and to find additional groups.

•Donate to well-known, established charities. Be wary of those with names similar to legitimate charities.

Be wary of unsolicited calls or emails. Do not give your credit card or banking information over the phone, and do not click on links or attachments in unsolicited emails.

•Do not make checks payable to an individual. Specify the purpose in writing.

•Do not be pressured to give. High-pressure tactics may signal a scam.

A caller from a charitable organization must provide the name and location of its principal place of business. Professional solicitors also must provide this basic information.

To report suspicious activities, contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at 800-282-0515 or www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov.

Representatives of the Attorney General’s Office will be in Akron from 1-4 p.m. Tuesday at Akron-Summit County Public Library, 60 S. High St., Akron, for a free Community Fraud Forum. Topics include financial crime investigations, fraud in Ohio’s charities, health-care fraud and financial fraud targeting older adults. The sessions offer continuing education credits for certain workers. To register, go to www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov/CommunityForum.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.

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