Security Firm Finds Ransomware Criminals Deliver Bad Victim Support

A security firm posed as a ransomware victim to learn whether cyber-criminals are giving good support to their targets. Most don’t, but one group put extra effort into closing the deal.

Ransomware Support 2

Most crypto-ransomware gangs are willing to negotiate with customers, but support for non-technical users varies tremendously, security firm F-Secure found during an investigation of such cyber-criminal groups.

The firm's security team worked with a non-technical employee, who acted as the victim, to contact ransomware groups and find out how supportive they were of their victims. Security researchers helped the employee set up a burner email account, hide her internet address and take other steps to keep her identity safe. They only referred to her as "Christine" in talking to the media.

"We took someone here who was non-technical and threw [that person] into the ransomware world," said Sean Sullivan, a security advisor with F-Secure. "It was all about detailing the user experience with the operations."

Overall, aside from the Cerber variant of ransomware and its operators, the criminal groups scored low for professionalism, how well their support staff conveyed information and whether their software and representatives could converse in different languages, according to a report published by F-Secure. The company looked at five different groups. Cerber scored 8.5 on a nine-point scale, indicating that it was a professional endeavor, while all other variants scored a 4 or less.

As ransomware infections have increased over the past year, some victims—especially non-technical users—are left with less hope of recovering their data easily by paying a ransom. In the first quarter of 2016, the FBI has reportedly estimated that ransomware caused $209 million in damages. In one survey, about half of U.S. victims admitted paying the ransom to recover their data.

Yet, there are a number of hurdles to recovering data, unless a user has made recent backups.

Bitcoins pose a major stumbling block for many victims and the criminal operators often seem ready to take advantage of a victim's naiveté. Some of the criminals contacted by Christine pointed her toward bitcoin exchanges that likely were owned by other criminals, Sullivan said.

Three out of four of the ransomware operations were willing to negotiate. One cut its asking price by two-thirds, according to F-Secure. Perhaps not surprising, the group behind Cerber would not negotiate, but did give the victim an extension to pay.

The study highlights that ransomware operators must tread a fine line, and not all of them do it well, according to F-Secure.

"These are criminals who are making money off the backs of people and businesses they are hurting, [b]ut conversely, like any decent venture, they're also concerned about offering good customer service—including support channels and reliable decryption after payment," the company stated in the report. "The difference, of course, is that ransomware gangs have coercively forced people into the position of being their customer."

In some cases, however, Christine's conversations with the criminals underscored that they were humans as well and that ransomware is not likely their first choice as a business, Sullivan said.

"Christine was lured in, she felt bad for the guy, because the back and forth really felt genuine," he said. "Someone who is not cynical of these people's motives could be pulled in really quickly."

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...