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Source: Toronto Star

Posted on December 30, 2003

      Cyber-blackmail artists are shaking down office workers, threatening to delete computer files or install pornographic images on work PCs unless the targets pay a ransom, police and security experts say.

      The extortion scam, which is believed to have surfaced a year ago, targets anyone on the corporate ladder with a PC connected to the Internet. The scheme usually starts with a threatening e-mail in which the author claims to have the power to take over a worker's computer, experts said.

      The e-mail typically contains a demand that, unless a small fee is paid, at first usually the equivalent of about $26 (Canadian), the author will attack the PC with a file-wiping program or download child pornography on to the machine.

      "They prey on the nice secretary who wouldn't do anything wrong," a British detective specializing in cyber-crime said. "When she gets one of these e-mails, she thinks, 'Oh, my goodness, what am I going to do?' So she puts it on her credit card and transfers the funds to the (suspect's online bank) account and hopes it goes away."

      The officer advised against co-operating with the fraudsters.

      "If a person pays up, say it's just 20 euros ($32.70 Canadian), then they have identified a soft target. They may come back for more, next time demanding more money."

      Investigators acknowledge the racket is a difficult one to crack. Because the ransom is small, people tend to pay up and keep quiet.

      Police said the number of cases is tailing off, but because the crime so often goes unreported, there is little evidence the scheme is actually in decline.

      According to Finnish computer-security firm F-Secure, a large Scandinavian university was hit earlier this month. Several university officials received an e-mail from a fraudster who appeared to be based in Estonia, said F-Secure research manager Mikko Hypponen.

      The e-mail said several security vulnerabilities had been detected on the university's network. Unless the e-mail recipient transferred 20 euros to the author's online bank account, he or she would release a series of viruses capable of deleting a host of computer files.

      Hypponen said he advised the university to take the necessary precautions, alert police and not pay.

      "A lot of these cases are simply bluffing. But I'm sure there are both bluffs and actual cases," said Hypponen.

      Police said crime gangs have turned cyber-extortion into a tidy business of late. A preferred tool is the crude but effective denial-of-service attack on a company's network, capable of crippling it with an overwhelming flood of data.

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