Family Pictures Lost In A Click

A Ransomware Short Story

Image credit: Neon Cash by Graeme Metcalf

I was checking my emails. I was happy to see one from my good friend Dave. It read, “I thought you might like this: https://www.amazonn.com/…" Anticipating something funny (we always played jokes on each other), I chuckled as I clicked the link.

The page was taking forever to load, and I became frustrated.

While waiting, I noticed the Windows balloon notification at the bottom right of the screen, a constant nagging reminder that I needed to update Windows.

“I don’t have time for this!”

And I impatiently closed the notification.

“It has been a few months since I updated. It’s going to take forever for them to install.”

“Finally! The page has finished loading.”

It was a page for a funny-looking toaster.

“How odd. He must have sent me the wrong link.”

“Honey! Do you remember that funny picture we took last summer by the lake? Let’s look at it. I was going to print it out so we could frame it, and I could use something funny after looking at this stupid email. What folder is it saved under?”

After several minutes of searching, I found the picture and double-clicked it.

“What is this?!”

An image of a lock appeared instead of the photograph.

“Let me check my other pictures.”

“What?! They all have it! $350 to get my files back!”

“OK. Calm down.” Sigh. “The picture is backed up on my external hard drive.”

“What?! It’s locked there, too?!”

I started hyperventilating and shaking, and it felt like my whole world was falling apart. All my files are gone!

Then I remembered my pictures were on Dropbox. I saw that my most recent pictures were there. At least those pictures had a version history of up to 30 days, so I was able to recover those files. However, the picture I wanted to see was not on Dropbox because I ran out of space. I had moved those files from Dropbox to my external hard drive.

I got so mad that I swung at the first thing within reach. A spindle of blank DVDs went flying across the room. Ironically, those blank DVDs could have saved my files from ransomware.

Lessons from the Story

This story was fiction, yet it depicts scenarios experienced by many every day as ransomware is on the rise. Let’s review it to identify what happened and how it might have been prevented.

Links

The main character clicked on a link within an email. That is an easy trap commonly used because it still works.

The link was for Amazon with an extra “n.” Had the main character noticed that he or she may not have clicked the link. The link could still have said Amazon but gone to “Amazonn.” Or Character substitution like Arnazon.com because your eyes may automatically connect the “r” and “n” to become an “m.”

  1. Verify the link by hovering over it / right-clicking it on a desktop or pressing it down for 3 seconds on a touch device to get the link. Copy the link and paste it into your search engine search box. If your search engine results look weird, it is probably unsafe, and be careful when clicking on shortened or tiny URLs.

Computer Update

The main character had been putting off updating Windows, which greatly increases the chances of getting ransomware. The most recent ransomware attacks exploit out-of-date Windows computers (and can also attack Macs, Linux computers, and smartphones).

  1. Make the time to update your devices. This includes not just Windows but Adobe Flash, Adobe Reader, Firefox, Java, and every piece of software you commonly use. Also, delete old software you are not using.

Backups

This one is tricky. The main character was doing a good thing by backing up pictures. The downside was the backup was attached to the computer, which made it vulnerable. Furthermore, the backup drive had the one and only backup copy.

  1. It is best to have multiple backups of different types. Back up files to data disc, thumb drive, external hard drive, but don’t leave it connected all the time, and, if you are comfortable a cloud service (e.g. Google photos or Dropbox). Having three copies of your important files reduces your chances of complete data loss. Open connections to backups mean your backups can also be encrypted. Along with thumb drives and any other connected devices.

Antivirus

The main character did not mention if he or she had antivirus software. If not, the ransomware could never have been detected. If yes, it is possible it was off, not up to date, or the ransomware was so new it was unknown to the antivirus software.

  1. It’s good to have antivirus software on your computer. You have more than a zero percent chance of stopping the ransomware if you have an antivirus versus not having one. However, research the current top-rated software and only download it from a trusted link or purchase it in a store.

Before You Go

This short novel was written to vividly portray the effects of ransomware. Simple cyber hygiene can help prevent a ransomware attack.

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Miguel A. Calles · Serverless CISO

Author of "Serverless Security" · Specializing in CMMC, SOC 2, serverless & engineering.