The victim had a choice: Pay the hackers a ransom of one bitcoin, a digital currency worth $2,365, in exchange for regaining access to the computer, or try to infect two new people on behalf of the attackers. If someone the victim knew fell for the bait and became infected, the attackers would consider the ransom paid and cede control of the infected computer, the New York Times reports. Last year’s attack was, according to cybersecurity researchers who discovered what they now call the Popcorn Time ransomware, the first Ponzi scheme for one of the internet’s oldest types of cyberattacks. Ransomware is a type of malicious software that infects a system and then holds it hostage, demanding a ransom for its release. It is one of the most popular and lucrative ways to attack computers.
Security companies estimate that criminals raked in $1 billion from ransomware attacks last year. This year, the number is likely to be much higher, as ransomware schemes multiply. One strain, WannaCry, infecting hundreds of thousands of computers in 74 countries in about a day last month. Security researchers warn that WannaCry, which exploited a wide-ranging vulnerability in Windows systems and used a clever mechanism to to spread itself across new systems, is just the tip of the iceberg. They are tracking new schemes dreamed up by criminals who have quickly realized that people are willing to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in ransom. “This is a growing business because it works,” said Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure, a security firm based in Helsinki, Finland. “And the attacks are becoming more creative and effective.” He added, “These networks all watch each other and learn. When a new model works, it quickly grows as others build on it.”