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Hackers encrypt rising number of U.S. computers to demand ransom

Foreign hackers attempt to encrypt the hard drives of thousands of American computer users daily in an attempt to extort ransom payments for decryption, cybersecurity experts said Tuesday.

“We’re looking at over 4,000 attacks a day,” Bob Gregg, chief executive of ID Experts, a Portland, Ore., firm that offers data breach protection, told a cybersecurity summit.

Among the targets of the extortionists are police departments, law firms, retailers, hospitals and individual computer users, said Jeffrey L. Coburn, chief of the major cybercrimes unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

If an individual or company adopts minimal security measures, it can thwart the criminal hacker, who does not want the hassle of overcoming barriers to making ransom demands, Coburn said.

The size of ransom demands varies, but Coburn said he’d seen one for $47,000.

“These guys will negotiate, probably not much but they will negotiate,” Coburn said. “They want the quick turnaround. … It’s financially motivated.”

The vast majority of those behind the ransomware attacks are overseas, experts said.

Coburn encouraged those hit with ransomware attacks to contact the FBI, which in most cases does not advocate paying a ransom. The bureau says paying a ransom does not guarantee that hackers will provide decryption keys to let users regain access to their data, and may funnel money to potential terror groups.

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