Published in the March 4, 2016 edition

MELROSE — The city’s Police Department has joined a growing list of entities victimized by a Bitcoin ransom.

Late last week, according to Chief Mike Lyle, his men could not access records or write reports electronically because people had hacked into the department’s in-house computer software and “held” the information “ransom.”

To pay the ransom, police bought a Bitcoin for $489 and by Saturday, February 27, had access to their own records again.

“They didn’t steal any data,” Lyle said. “They just created a nuisance.”

And it is a nuisance that is increasing in popularity.

Last April, for example, the Tewksbury police chief called those who did something similar to his department “terrorists.”

Last month, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles agreed to pay $17,000 after its records were held ransom.

In a story last summer, the New York Times reported, “In the old days, criminals liked their ransom payments in briefcases full of unmarked bills.

“These days, there’s a new preferred method for hostage takers: the virtual currency Bitcoin.

“In a modern day version of a mob shakedown, hackers around the world have seized files on millions of computers, taken down public websites and even, in a few cases, threatened physical harm. The victims — who have ranged from ordinary computer users to financial firms and police departments — are told that their only way out is through a Bitcoin payment that is sometimes more than $20,000.

“One set of attackers, believed to be based in Russia and Ukraine, collected about $16.5 million in Bitcoins in a little over a month, primarily from victims in the United States, according to the security firm Sophos.

“Criminals like the virtual currency because it can be held in a digital wallet that does not have to be registered with any government or financial authority — and because it can be easily exchanged for real money. At the moment, a single Bitcoin can be sold online or on the street for around $290.”

In a related article from “Coindesk,” victims of malware, such as “bitcoin ransomware Cryptolocker, should just pay off the perpetrators if they want to see their data again, an FBI agent has advised.

“According to Security Ledger, Acting Special Agent Joseph Bonavolonta, who oversees the bureau’s Boston office, told C-level executives at Wednesday’s Cyber Security Summit they’d be better off stumping up the ransom.

“According to an FBI report from June, this sum can be anywhere from $200 to $10,000. Bonavolonta said:

“‘The amount of money made by these criminals is enormous and that’s because the overwhelming majority of institutions just pay the ransom … To be honest, we often advise people just to pay the ransom.’”

“Programs like Cryptolocker and Cryptowall – typically spread through phishing emails – demand bitcoin to unlock files they have encrypted on a user’s computer.

“The FBI said it had received 992 complaints about (now defunct) Cryptolocker in a 14-month period, with victims reporting losses of $18 million. “‘Criminals prefer bitcoin because it’s easy to use, fast, publicly available, decentralized and provides a sense of heightened security/anonymity,’” its report read.

“Because ransomware has found success on such a vast scale, Bonavolonta said attackers are likely to keep their demands low to maximise profit. For this same reason, they are mostly honest, he added: “You do get your access back.’”

No guarantees

Bonavolonta’s advice comes counter to many public advisories on the subject to date. In 2013, when Cryptolocker first swept the UK, the National Crime Agency (NCA) issued a statement telling businesses not to pay up.

“The NCA would never endorse the payment of a ransom to criminals and there is no guarantee that they would honour the payments in any event,” its statement read.

In April, a security researcher from Kaspersky Labs, Jornt van der Wiel, echoed this sentiment, telling CoinDesk: “As there are few ways to get files back without paying, users often just give in. This is the wrong strategy, but it’s often the easiest for the user.”

Others, including authorities in The Netherlands, argue that payment actually helps to perpetuate the problem, as it gives malware operators an incentive to continue – and target new victims.

A 2014 study of 39,760 people from security firm ESNET showed that only 1.4% of victims actually paid the Cryptolocker ransom.

While some were given access to decryption software, others were not – usually because the full amount hadn’t been paid.