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Ransomware is a type of malware from cryptovirology that threatens to publish the victim's personal data or permanently block access to it unless a ransom is paid off. While some simple ransomware may lock the system without damaging any files, more advanced malware uses a technique called cryptoviral extortion. It encrypts the victim's files, making them inaccessible, and demands a ransom payment to decrypt them. In a properly implemented cryptoviral extortion attack, recovering the files without the decryption key is an intractable problem – and difficult to trace digital currencies such as paysafecard or Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are used for the ransoms, making tracing and prosecuting the perpetrators difficult.
Ransomware attacks are typically carried out using a Trojan disguised as a legitimate file that the user is tricked into downloading or opening when it arrives as an email attachment. However, one high-profile example, the WannaCry worm, traveled automatically between computers without user interaction.
Starting as early as 1989 with the first documented ransomware known as the AIDS trojan, the use of ransomware scams has grown internationally. There were 181.5 million ransomware attacks in the first six months of 2018. This record marks a 229% increase over this same time frame in 2017. In June 2014, vendor McAfee released data showing that it had collected more than double the number of ransomware samples that quarter than it had in the same quarter of the previous year. CryptoLocker was particularly successful, procuring an estimated US$3 million before it was taken down by authorities, and CryptoWall was estimated by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to have accrued over US$18 million by June 2015. In 2020, the IC3 received 2,474 complaints identified as ransomware with adjusted losses of over $29.1 million. The losses could be more than that, according to the FBI. According to a report by SonicWall, there were around 623 million ransomware attacks in 2021.