It was a Sunday when Todd Reutlinger realized someone had managed to get into his company’s computer system.
There wasn’t much he could do about it at the time, so the owner of LN Group Marketing and Promotions was left to worry that entire day about what had happened inside his server.
The next day, he contacted his computer-service people, who told him not to worry, that it was probably nothing more than a virus.
Within hours, Reutlinger knew it was more than that.
He just didn’t know how much more.
“They somehow managed to disarm the anti-virus and shut down the safe mode,” he said.
“And then, a screen popped up and it told me all my files had been encrypted with a 250-bit code and I had to sent them $3,000 within the first 24 hours to get it all back.
“It went to $5,000 after three days, $7,000 after a week and $10,000 after two weeks.”
Encryption software is used to scramble data to make it impossible to read by anyone but the recipient. In this case, it meant only the hackers could access all of the company’s documents on the server.
“Tuesday morning, I was sick to my stomach,” Reutlinger said.
Even a backup drive on his server couldn’t be accessed to try to retrieve any of the documents.
The next morning, however, the service people removed the hard drive and put it into a different computer, managing to get in and back up all files to Feb. 8, the last business day before the saga began.
“But, I was paralyzed completely for a week,” Reutlinger said, noting he had to buy a new server.
Kamloops RCMP Staff Sgt. Grant Learned said the access likely happened when someone using the business’s computers clicked on a link that downloaded malware — malicious software — that infected the server contents with the encryption software.
The perpetrators would be alerted they had taken control and then use the information to identify the company and make the contact for money to release the files.
“This is an extortion against the business,” Learned said, noting payment should never be made.
Learned said perpetrators often work out of countries that lack laws governing computer-technology crimes and that fact, combined with the ability to route the malware through servers around the world, makes the crime virtually impossible to solve.
“I think this is the new future for cyber-crime,” Reutlinger said, “basically taking your company and holding it for ransom.”
This isn’t the first time a Kamloops business has been hacked online.
In December, Sid Kandola, owner of City Furniture and Appliances on Hillside Drive, placed an order with a mattress company he had been dealing with for years.
The purchase appeared as though it had gone through fine, but the product never arrived.
Kandola told KTW email correspondence with the Chinese export company had been hacked and he lost his $35,000 payment.
Although Reutlinger has a new server and measures have been taken to try to avoid a similar situation, he said it’s impossible to be sure it won’t happen again.
“There’s no way you can be protected 100 per cent,” he said.
“If anybody wants to get in bad enough and they know how to do it, they will get in.”
‘Ransomware’ more common
Kamloops RCMP doesn’t see many cases like the extortion attempt via computer Todd Reutlinger experienced, said Staff Sgt. Grant Learned.
They happen, but the most common is what he called “ransomware,” when someone clicks on a link, the screen freezes and another one pops up, advising the computer user they have accessed an unsafe site.
“They tell you to click on the link below and they can assist you, playing that they are a virus-scan company.
“Eventually, they’ll ask you for your credit-card number,” Learned said.
“All that really has happened is you’ve accessed a pop-up that causes your screen to freeze. You just need to unplug it, reboot and it’s fine. Or, if you’re worried, take it to a computer shop to be sure there was no malware downloaded.”
Learned said anyone using a computer should always ensure its virus and malware software is constantly updated.
For those who also use servers, they should also have the latest in security and protection updates and all files should be backed up on a daily basis.
Backing up files is essential not just in case of hacking or malware, but for the other unexpected problems — theft, fire, a power surge that cooks the server and many other situations that could compromise the system and make record retrieval impossible.
For home-computer users, Learned advised they not click on any link they are unsure about or have not encountered before.
“For example, you’re browsing and you see a link for a 2,500-square-foot home on the Shuswap with 200 feet of sandy beach all for $250,000 and just click here for the details,” Learned said.
“You’ve got to use a little common sense. If you don’t know the site, don’t do it. It’s really user beware.”