A new twist on ransomware attacks has made the cybercrime even more spiteful. In this version, the attackers offer to unlock their victims? PC for free if they infect two of their friends – or perhaps someone they like a little less. The Popcorn Time malware may sound like a night at the cinema -and the name is identical to a video-streaming Bit Torrent app ? but it’s far from entertaining. Once your computer is infected, the malicious program encrypts all the files on your hard drive so you can’t access them. The attackers then demand a ransom payment via Bitcoin. That’s the standard method of ransomware, but this is where Popcorn Time applies its killer blow. You’re effectively offered a deal with the devil: if you don’t want to pay the unlocking ransom, you can infect other people instead. If two of the subsequent victims pay their ransoms, then you’ll get off without paying- like a pyramid scheme for hackers. It’s not yet clear if the offer is genuine or whether anyone has taken the hackers up on it. The hackers state that they are a group of computer-science students from Syria who are raising funds for aid in the troubled country. Neither claim has been confirmed, nor there are surely better ways to support the people of Syria than risking your data -perhaps consider donating to the Red Cross instead.
How will it affect me?
If you’re downloading and installing the legitimate (if legally dubious) Popcorn Time app, double- and triple-check that it’s the right one, so you don’t fall foul of this ransomware. Searching for Popcorn Time in Google reveals a host of websites claiming to offer the app for download. That’s because the software was made open-source to ensure it stayed free to use and couldn’t be shut down by copyright complaints. However, this means it’s difficult to tell which version is ‘Genuine’, and there are rumours online that some editions are run by copyright authorities in the US.
In other words, do your research and be wary when downloading Popcorn Time. If in any doubt, stick with legal paid-for services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. As ever, the best way to avoid trouble with ransomware is to not get infected in the first place, so make sure you’re running antivirus software, keep your operating system up to date, and use common sense online. It’s also sensible to keep your data backed up, which is good advice to follow for a host of PC-related problems. If your data is backed up, you won’t have to pay a ransom or sell out your friends to get it back. If you are unfortunate (or careless) enough to become the victim of a ransomware infection, there’s no guarantee that paying the fee will see your data released. If the attackers are unscrupulous enough to lock your files in the first place, it’s unlikely they’ll honour their promise to unlock them.
Ransomware is already the most vicious form of cybercrime around. If a hacker steals someone’s payment-card details, it’s only their cash they’re after, which will probably be reimbursed by their bank. But ransomware holds your data hostage, whether that’s your family photos, the novel you’ve been writing for years or your carefully curated music collection. Our computers are repositories for much that we hold dear, and – for that reason – you should back up your data regularly. We sincerely hope no one takes the hackers up on the offer of infecting a friend’s (or anyone else’s) computer. Although we’re grudgingly impressed by the devious idea of abusing social trends, using the same techniques as a clickbait site trying to make a story go viral, we wish it was genuinely for a good cause rather than for a ransomware attack. We’re hoping the methods used to spread this infection don’t catch on because it’s hard enough to trust websites as it is, let alone introduce doubt about links shared by our friends, family, and contacts who may secretly wish to do us harm.