Victims of ransomware scams almost never need to pay full sticker price to get their encrypted data back.
Those willing to negotiate can often get their ransom amount reduced substantially and obtain useful deadline extensions for paying it, a new report from F-Secure shows.
The security vendor recently conducted an experiment to evaluate what it described as the "customer experience" associated with five crypto-ransomware samples currently in the wild. The families evaluated for the experiment were Cerber, Jigsaw, Cryptomix, Shade, and TorrentLocker.
For the experiment, researchers at F-Secure created a victim persona named Christine Walters and used a fake Hotmail account in her name to communicate with the ransomware operators via their support channels. In order to appear convincing, Walters’ persona was made to appear as though she knew very little about ransomware, security, and Bitcoin, the preferred online currency for making ransom payments.
The exercise showed that when victims dig in their heels a bit, criminals are likely to relent and try to make what they can rather than risk losing everything, says Sean Sullivan, security advisor at F-Secure.
“If you find yourself compromised, haggle,” Sullivan says. “Ask questions. Interact with the ransomware agent and get a feel for their responsiveness. The majority want to get something rather than nothing, and will cut a deal to close the case.”
The criminals behind three of the five ransomware families in F-Secure’s experiment were willing to negotiate on the ransom amount when asked. On average, they dropped the ransom amount by 29%. The TorrentLocker operators did not respond at all to "Walters’" emails, while those behind Cerber flatly refused to negotiate. In each case, the agents with whom Walters communicated were similarly willing to extend their payment deadlines--sometimes by days--when asked.
The operators of Cryptomix had the highest initial ransom amount at around $2,000. But when F-Secure’s reviewer protested the sticker price, the Cryptomix agent who responded to her email first dropped the demand by $1,000. Over the course of the next two days, the agent agreed to drop the demand by another $350, before holding firm at $650.
Similarly, the agent responding to emails pertaining to the Shade ransomware sample was willing to drop the ransom amount from $400 to $280 when F-Secure’s reviewer protested the original amount.
Among the ransomware families in the F-Secure study, the one with the best customer support was Jigsaw. The initial ransom amount at $150 was substantially lower than the ransoms demanded by the other ransomware families. The support agent for the malware agreed to reduce the amount to $125 when requested, and then offered help in finding a Bitcoin vendor. The Jigsaw support agent even helped F-Secure’s reviewer find stores in her local area that accepted payments for Bitcoins using Paysafecards, and also offered to stay online while payment was made.
“The perceived friendliness of some of the interactions was sincerely confusing to our reviewer,” Sullivan says. “Had they not been coached by me, I suspect they might be successfully socially engineered in other circumstances.”
English was the preferred language of communication for all of the malware families that F-Secure reviewed and all the chat interactions demanded knowledge of English.
Since 2005, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) has received more than 7,700 complaints involving ransomware according to data released earlier this year. The incidents have resulted in victims paying more than $57 million in ransom money to cyber extortionists. The ransom fees have ranged in amounts from $200 to $10,000.
In addition, over the last one year, the US Department of Homeland Security has received over 320 incident reports of ransomware related activity on 29 federal agency networks. So far, though, no federal agency has had to pay a ransom in order to get ransomware removed from their computers, DHS says.
Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio