By Elaine Viets
There’s another virus that’s hitting those of us who work from home – ransomware. The most common right now is called the Microsoft Attack. A warning pops up that you have a virus and there is an 800 number to call “Microsoft” to have it removed. My IT guy says Microsoft will never call, email, or send a pop-up about a virus. That’s malicious software holding your computer hostage until the ransom is paid. You’re locked out.
Ransomware attacks are epidemic. Two weeks ago, a woman in my (socially distanced) gym class had her computer locked by ransomware. She refused to pay the ransom. Instead, she paid her IT guy $600 to free her computer. Yep. The poor woman ponied up 600 bucks. My IT guy said $50-100 was overcharging. He could do the job in under an hour.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her it would have been cheaper if she’d backed up her data and gotten a new computer. Not to mention a new IT guy.
Last week, my husband Don was working at his computer when it was attacked by ransomware. His computer was locked. Don couldn’t finish his article and he was on deadline. A red warning message blared across his screen. There was also an 800 number that he could call for “help.”
We both knew how expensive that help would be.
Don waited about an hour, hoping the ransomware would disappear.
No such luck.
Don and I had no choice but to use our most extreme weapon: 131 C.
He called the 800 number on his screen and I got on the line to listen in. The man who answered sounded young – maybe in his twenties – and he spoke English with an Asian accent. He told Don his name – a decidedly WASPy one, something like John Clark. That’s what I’ll call him for this blog. The attacker also told Don he was working in Chicago. I doubt he was anywhere near the place.
John claimed he didn’t know how Don’s computer got locked up. He was simply here to help, and if Don would give him his credit card number and tell him exactly what was wrong, then John would fix Don’s computer. They went back and forth like this for at least a minute:
John would ask Don to tell him what was wrong. Don would demand John remove the ransomware. John would deny he was there for any reason but to help and if Don would give him his credit card information . . .
At that point, I joined the conversation. “This is Don’s attorney, Vera Ellis, calling on a recorded line. Mr. Clark, you are aware that this conversation is being recorded, right?”
“No reason to record,” John Clark said. “If you will tell me what is wrong, I can fix the computer.”
“I’m Don’s attorney,” I repeated. “I’m speaking on a recorded line. You are in violation of FCC regulation 131 C. Do you understand that, Mr. Clark?”
“If you will tell me what is wrong, I can fix the computer,” John Clark said. He continued to protest that he only wanted to help and would we tell him what was wrong. I talked over him and kept repeating: “No, Mr. Clark. I’m informing you again, you are in violation of section 131 C. Do you understand? That’s 131 C.”
Finally, the line went dead. Don turned off his computer.
Half an hour later, Don switched his computer back on. The ransomware was gone and his computer worked fine. He finished his article on time.
By the way, 131 C is the number of an apartment we lived in on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. We moved in on a muggy August Saturday, and the air-conditioning was broken. The apartment was at least a hundred degrees. We couldn’t open the windows, either. They were painted shut. And there were no fans.
I called the landlord, who told me he couldn’t get anyone there before Monday at the earliest. I suspected he didn’t want to pay the weekend repair rates. I wasn’t about to swelter in that apartment until Monday.
“You have to get someone here to fix the air-conditioning,” I told him in a firm voice. “Or you’re in violation of section 131 C of the housing code.”
After I hung up the phone, Don said, “Isn’t 131 C our apartment number?”
It was. But it was enough to produce an air-conditioning repairman at our apartment within two hours.
And so the legend of 131 C was born.
Some of these scammers hijack major cities and counties. County officials in LaPorte, Indiana paid a $132,000 ransom to hackers who took over some of the county’s computers. The hijackers demanded their payment in Bitcoin. Another city paid more than $9 million to update their old, outdated system, rather than give the ransomers the $76,000 they demanded in Bitcoin. (Ransomware thieves loved Bitcoin.)
The FBI recommends that you don’t pay the crooks who hold your computer for ransom. You can report malware, ransomware, phishing and other scams to the FBI by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI. Press 3 and you’ll be directed to a website to file a complaint.
The FBI does catch some of the critters crawling around on the web.
One Raymond Odigie Uadiale pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering in connection with a ransomware called Reveton. The former Microsoft employee got 18 months in prison.
If you ask me, and anyone else who’s battled these scammers, Ray got off easy.