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Cybercriminals Targeting Police, Hospitals, Schools for Ransom

April 12, 2016  | 

Three weeks ago, a debilitating digital virus spread quickly in computer networks at three Southern California hospitals owned by Prime Healthcare Services, encrypting medical and other data so it was impossible to access.

Using a pop-up window, unidentified hackers demanded about $17,000 in the hard-to-trace cybercurrency called bitcoin for the digital key to unlock the data.

The attempted extortion by criminal hackers was the latest case of what the FBI says is a fast-growing threat and law enforcement agencies are a favorite target.

In March 2015, for example, the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department in coastal Maine paid about $350 in bitcoin for the key to its encrypted data after a malware attack. After the data was unlocked, Western Union reimbursed the county for the ransom payment, according to a county official who described the transaction, the Los Angeles Times reports.

That followed similar reported attacks on law enforcement in Tewksbury, Mass.; Midlothian, Ill.; Dickson County, Tenn.; Collinville, Ala.; and Durham, N.H. Some police chiefs refused to pay, saying they had backed up their data or it wasn't crucial.

But if this happens to your agency, don't expect the ransom to be $350. So-called ransomware attacks have surged so sharply that the FBI says hacking victims in the United States have paid more than $209 million in ransom payments in the first three months of this year, compared with $25 million in all of 2015. The FBI has not reported any arrests.

Experts say agencies should train employees not to open digital attachments or to click on unfamiliar weblinks in emails that might contain viruses or other malware. They also should back up critical data and use up-to-date virus detection software.

Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

Sheriffs Explorer Sgt. @ 4/12/2016 1:32 PM

"The FBI has reported no arrests". Thats because most of these scammers are in other countries. I keep getting these scam calls from the "Federal Grants Department" who want to give me $9,000 for being a registered democratic voter and a good citizen. And I'm a Republican! But yeah, these idiots are calling from India or the Middle East somewhere.

Leonard @ 4/12/2016 1:53 PM

Precisely why we need encryption and why law enforcement needs to drop this fantasy about cell phones. FBI and LE are not going dark in this golden age of intelligence and the expansion of the internet of things. You can find information from vehicle, subscriptions, and in the future, televisions and appliances. Encryption protects the public and that value to the public outweighs the needs of the government.

JDSA @ 4/12/2016 5:19 PM

Leonard, what does needing encryption have to do with this particular subject? You are bringing up an issue that is in no way relevant to this article. This article is about encryption, but not too protect us. I trust you know how to get to the ACLU or EFF websites to cry about encryption and protecting yourself from the government. Grab your tinfoil hat and get on over to the appropriate forum.

Leonard @ 4/13/2016 11:47 AM

Encryption would have protected the data that the hackers accessed.

OK then @ 4/14/2016 5:05 PM

I could be giving our government agencies too much credit, but I would have thought their networks were already encrypted. Sadly I am sure there is at least one firewall out there w/ "password" as the password.

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