New computer virus holding files hostage for ransom

By: Jason Tarr Email
By: Jason Tarr Email

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WICHITA, Kan. -- As a small digital clock ticks down on his computer screen, time is running out for Randolph Cabral to save almost two decades of the work he and his staff have put into their business.

That's because all of his computer files are being held hostage by computer programmers he's never never met.

He's been given just hours to make a ransom payment or possibly lose everything.

"It's like having a gun to your head," Cabral said. "You're looking at the clock and you're debating, 'Do I pay them or not and take the risk?"

Cabral says the computers at Kansas Braille Transcription Institute have been infected with the Crypto Locker Virus which is a kind of "ransom virus." The virus holds computer files hostage. Then it threatens to delete them if a ransom isn't paid in 100 hours. It provides a digital clock that ticks down the time you have remaining to make the decision.

Experts say it's one of the worst computer viruses they've ever seen.

The virus has infected hundreds of thousands of Windows PCs around the country since it debuted last month.

"It takes each of your files and locks them behind a key that you don't have and you can't find and then extorts you for (hundreds of dollars) to get that key," said Zachary Vickers who is now assisting the Kansas Braille Transcription Institute with technological support.

The virus is usually carried by an email attachment. The email often comes from an email address that appears to belong to one of many well-known companies.

Once the attachment is opened and the file is downloaded onto the computer, there's very little anyone can do to fix it.

"You can't undo this without paying them that (ransom) money," Vickers said.

The ransom can be anywhere from $100 to $700. Even if you pay it, experts say there's no guarantee you'll get your files back.

That could spell disaster for the Kansas Braille Transcription Institute. The business provides textbooks, scholastic materials and hymnals to U.S. and Canadian students who are blind. Those students will now not likely receive the materials they need in time.

"All of our work is lost. Almost 12 years of files have been encrypted," Cabral said. "You kind of feel like somebody broke into your building and stole everything that you have and on top of that they want money to give it back to you."

In addition, Cabral and the staff have been working on a project to get 10 local homeless veterans off the street. Those files are also on their computer server.

"We've been constructing the files, doing all the paperwork and now all the files are gone," Cabral said.

He estimates it could cost his business $25,000 to reconstruct the files. In addition, they could lose contracts with some of the colleges and agencies they work with to provide the braille materials.

"It's going to hurt us financially because it's not money we anticipated (we were) going to lose," Cabral said.

Cabral now wants to warn other businesses so they don't face a similar situation.

Computer experts say the key is a focus on prevention.

They say to be very careful of where you go and what you do on the internet.

"Don't open suspicious files. Look at file sizes and make sure they make sense," Vickers said.

Also, make sure to make frequent backups of your files.

"'Backup' sounds like a technical term but it basically means keep copies in a separate location," Vickers said.

Cabral says he thought backups of his files were being made over the past few months, but that wasn't the case.

Now, for he and others whose computers have the virus, the clock is ticking when it comes to deciding what to do next.

"I don't know what we're going to do yet," Cabral said.

Cabral has asked that people contact his office if they may be able to provide a solution.

He's also looking for volunteers who can help he and his staff search their warehouse for what few hard copies of files they may have.

You can reach the Kansas Braille Transcription Institute at (316) 265-9692.

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