Cyber criminals who have forced U.S. hospitals, schools and cities to pay hundreds of millions in blackmail or see their computer files destroyed are now targeting the unlikeliest group of victims — local police departments.
Eastern European hackers are hitting law enforcement agencies nationwide with so-called "ransomware" viruses that seize control of a computer system's files and encrypt them. The hackers then hold the files hostage if the victims don't pay a ransom online with untraceable digital currency known as Bitcoins. They try to maximize panic with the elements of a real-life hostage crisis, including ransom notes and countdown clocks.
If a ransom is paid, the victim gets an emailed "decryption key" that unlocks the system. If the victim won't pay, the hackers threaten to delete the files, which they did last year to departments in Alabama and New Hampshire. That means evidence from open cases could be lost or altered, and violent criminals could go free.
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