At the end of 2012, as the cybersecurity predictions started rolling in for the coming year, one issue kept showing up on virtually everyone’s list. What was that prediction? Ransomware is the next big cyberthreat.

What Is Ransomware?

As the name implies, “ransomware” is malware that prevents you from accessing data or information on your computer until you pay a ransom or a specified amount of money.

Just as sophisticated phishing emails appear to be from trusted financial institutions or other respected companies, ransomware can appear to be from legitimate sources such as legal authorities or even government officials. A demand is usually made for a fine to be paid for the “illegal activity” that was supposedly found originating from your computer. The illegal activity claim could be items like copying songs or duplicating videos and violating copyright laws.  

The two commonest forms of ransomware will: lock the screen with a full-screen image or Web page to prevent access to the computer; or encrypt files with a password that prevents access to data or information.   

The other bad news for those infected with this malware is that paying the ransom does not always return your computer to normal, since users are not typically dealing with reputable actors.

For example, Skype users were targeted last year with a scary message that locked them out of their data, encrypted their files and demanded payment to the tune of $200. This ransomware displayed messages claiming the user was downloading MP3s, illegal pornography, gambling and more. And while the user was locked out of his or her computer, a script was running that was sending thousands of click fraud transmissions.

How Is Ransomware Spread?

Like other forms of malware, ransomware is typically installed on your computer when you click on a malicious link, open an infected email attachment or click on a bad social networking link. You can reduce the likelihood of an infection by using a firewall, updating security patches and ensuring that anti-virus and anti-malware software are working properly on your PC. 

If you think you have ransomware, it’s best to run a system scan with an updated security software solution from a reputable vendor, like Symantec, McAfee or Microsoft. Be advised that some ransomware won’t allow you to unlock the screen, so you may need to restart the computer with an offline disk. And while this may be obvious, you should not pay the ransom, or other complications will likely result.

One example to consider is the FBI MoneyPak Ransomware virus, a.k.a. “FBI virus.” This malware uses social engineering tactics to trick users into thinking that the FBI wants a fine to be paid for illegal computer activity. The ransomware claims, on the fake FBI Web page, that the computer owner may face jail time if the fine isn’t paid on time.

Botcrawl.com describes how to remove the FBI virus, but this is not an easy problem to resolve for most users. There are reports of the virus taking control of webcams. Others with this virus received phone calls from people who claimed to be from Microsoft or even the FBI. These calls are fraudulent, and users who are contacted by someone shouldn’t believe the claims made without proof of identity.

Tip: Technology leaders should train end users to verify all contacts from “authorities” by initiating contact themselves via trusted phone numbers or verified email addresses.

Why Is Ransomware Spreading?

How fast is ransomware growing? One reputable 2012 report claimed that ransomware extorts more than $5 million a year. Other sources say ransomware will surge in 2013 and beyond because it yields faster financial returns for malware makers than the multistep process required for making money, such as building botnets or harvesting credentials for identity theft or other online crimes.

Ransomware victims often pay hundreds of dollars to criminals; whereas other cybercrime activities usually pay much smaller amounts.

In conclusion, ransomware takes advantage of multiple forms of online criminal activity and packages them together to gain maximum impact as fast as possible. Ransomware is a scary evolution of online fraud — and you need to prepare to deal with it.

Dan Lohrmann Dan Lohrmann  |  Contributing Writer

Daniel J. Lohrmann became Michigan's first chief security officer (CSO) and deputy director for cybersecurity and infrastructure protection in October 2011. Lohrmann is leading Michigan's development and implementation of a comprehensive security strategy for all of the state’s resources and infrastructure. His organization is providing Michigan with a single entity charged with the oversight of risk management and security issues associated with Michigan assets, property, systems and networks.

Lohrmann is a globally recognized author and blogger on technology and security topics. His keynote speeches have been heard at worldwide events, such as GovTech in South Africa, IDC Security Roadshow in Moscow, and the RSA Conference in San Francisco. He has been honored with numerous cybersecurity and technology leadership awards, including “CSO of the Year” by SC Magazine and “Public Official of the Year” by Governing magazine.

His Michigan government security team’s mission is to:

  • establish Michigan as a global leader in cyberawareness, training and citizen safety;
  • provide state agencies and their employees with a single entity charged with the oversight of risk management and security issues associated with state of Michigan assets, property, systems and networks;
  • develop and implement a comprehensive security strategy (Michigan Cyber Initiative) for all Michigan resources and infrastructure;
  • improve efficiency within the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget; and
  • provide combined focus on emergency management efforts.


He currently represents the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) on the IT Government Coordinating Council that’s led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He also serves as an adviser on TechAmerica's Cloud Commission and the Global Cyber Roundtable.

From January 2009 until October 2011, Lohrmann served as Michigan's chief technology officer and director of infrastructure services administration. He led more than 750 technology staff and contractors in administering functions, such as technical architecture, project management, data center operations, systems integration, customer service (call) center support, PC and server administration, office automation and field services support.

Under Lohrmann’s leadership, Michigan established the award-winning Mi-Cloud data storage and hosting service, and his infrastructure team was recognized by NASCIO and others for best practices and for leading state and local governments in effective technology service delivery.

Earlier in his career, Lohrmann served as the state of Michigan's first chief information security officer (CISO) from May 2002 until January 2009. He directed Michigan's award-winning Office of Enterprise Security for almost seven years.

Lohrmann's first book, Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web, was published in November 2008.  Lohrmann was also the chairman of the board for 2008-2009 and past president (2006-2007) of the Michigan InfraGard Member's Alliance.

Prior to becoming Michigan's CISO, Lohrmann served as the senior technology executive for e-Michigan, where he published an award-winning academic paper titled The Michigan.gov Story — Reinventing State Government Online. He also served as director of IT and CIO for the Michigan Department of Management and Budget in the late 1990s.

Lohrmann has more than 26 years of experience in the computer industry, beginning his career with the National Security Agency. He worked for three years in England as a senior network engineer for Lockheed Martin (formerly Loral Aerospace) and for four years as a technical director for ManTech International in a U.S./UK military facility.

Lohrmann is a distinguished guest lecturer for Norwich University in the field of information assurance. He also has been a keynote speaker at IT events around the world, including numerous SecureWorld and ITEC conferences in addition to online webinars and podcasts. He has been featured in numerous daily newspapers, radio programs and magazines. Lohrmann writes a bimonthly column for Public CIO magazine on cybersecurity. He's published articles on security, technology management, cross-boundary integration, building e-government applications, cloud computing, virtualization and securing portals.

He holds a master’s degree in computer science from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Valparaiso University in Indiana.


NOTE: The columns here are Dan Lohrmann's own views. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the state of Michigan's official positions.

Recent Awards:
2011 Technology Leadership Award: InfoWorld
Premier 100 IT Leader for 2010: Computerworld magazine
2009 Top Doers, Dreamers and Drivers: Government Technology magazine
Public Official of the Year: Governing magazine — November 2008
CSO of the Year: SC Magazine — April 2008
Top 25 in Security Industry: Security magazine — December 2007
Compass Award: CSO Magazine — March 2007
Information Security Executive of the Year: Central Award 2006