Attempted Ransomware Scam Averted

Within hours of writing last week’s blog post, Low-Cost Cybersecurity Tips, I was the victim of a ransomware attempt. Ironic, eh? The scammer’s approach was sophisticated and targeted. I was drawn in by the message, initially replied, and was astounded by what happened next. Good news – this story has a happy ending. But it could have turned out much differently.

I’m sharing this recent brush with cybercrime to illustrate just how insidious online scammers are, and how capable they are of masquerading as a trusted sender. Perhaps reading about my experience will help you avert a ransomware or other cybercrime.

As an established tax professional, I often receive emails from prospective tax clients. Some are referred or introduced to me by an existing client or referral partner. Some prospective clients find me through my website or the IRS’ Tax Pro Directory. On May 20th, I received a message from an individual saying that he and his wife needed a new tax preparer. He acknowledged that he had missed the May 17th filing deadline and provided a few details about their income. He asked me to tell him how much it would cost to prepare their 2020 income tax returns.

Even though I am not taking new tax clients now, I didn’t want to be rude and not respond. I also wanted to be as helpful as possible to a taxpayer in need without committing to perform any work. So, I took a few minutes to write back to explain that I am not available and to share an IRS website link with tips for finding a tax professional and a directory by location of individuals with tax credentials (https://www.irs.gov/tax-professionals/choosing-a-tax-professional).

I noticed that the sender’s email address contained extensions that indicated his location to be in the United Kingdom. That did not make me suspicious of the sender’s identity because I have tax client who live or used to live in the UK. It did, however, prompt me to also send the prospective client another IRS link to information about US taxpayers living overseas (https://www.irs.gov/individuals/international-taxpayers/u-s-taxpayers-residing-outside-the-united-states). Feeling like I had done a good deed, I hit “send”.

Within a few minutes, I received a second message from the sender saying that he had scanned his 2019 returns for my review with a link to access the return copy. Red flag! I stopped in my tracks to absorb what I was reading. It was a clear indication that my “prospective client” was a scammer luring me to click on a link that would probably have held my data for ransom. My valuable tax client files that that contain all sorts of confidential and private information, like bank account and Social Security numbers.

I quickly shifted from “helpful” to “obstructive”. I erased the message string and dumped my email trash. It’s only been a few days, but it looks like that scammer is not coming back. I managed to avert that ransomware scam attempt, but there will be others. We all need to be aware and diligent to avert them. Want some tips? Check out last week’s blog post!

Signs You’re About to be Attacked by Ransomware

Kidnappers do their homework before snatching their victims to be sure that they have enough ransom money to be worth the time and risk. Until today, I hadn’t thought about scammers doing their homework before launching a ransomware attack. An article in Sophos News by Peter Mackenzie, The Realities of Ransomware: Five Signs You’re About to be Attacked, opened my eyes that system kidnappers usually leave a trail that can be detected.

I encourage you to read Mr. Mackenzie’s article and take action to protect your systems from being held for ransom. He shares valuable tips from his own professional experience, including tools and methods. https://bit.ly/2PFuhnX 

Here is a quick list of evidence of an existing or immanent ransomware attack that could be detected by a cybersecurity professional:

  • Unusual Behavioral

A periodic scan of your network’s file history can detect repeating patterns or other indicators of malicious activity on your systems. It could be nothing to worry about, but anything that looks unusual is probably worth checking out. Even if malware has been detected and removed, scammers could still be conducting harmful operations on your network.

  • Scanner Snooping

Scammers often gain access your systems by using phishing or social engineering schemes with authorized users. They especially love to capture credentials for users with administrative rights because it gives them more access. Once in, they can install a network scanner to find files with valuable information, such as bank accounts and tax IDs. A scanner can be detected and removed if you know how to do it.

  • Neutralized Security

Scammers that manage to compromise admin rights often try to disable your security software to swing open the door to your systems even wider. Several tools are available to force the removal of your security software. These tools have legitimate purposes, but they can be used by criminals to leave your systems vulnerable.

  • Embedded Tools

In addition to installing a scanner, scammers can embed keystroke readers to capture logon credentials. Capturing keystrokes allows access to your systems, some of which could store financial and confidential identity information. Other tools can be used to extract data and lists of usernames and passwords for use or sale.

Turns out, ransomware attackers do their homework just like kidnappers looking for a rich victim to snatch. Peter Mackenzie’s recent article in Sophos News really opened my eyes that ransomware attacks can be detected before they hold systems hostage. Read his article and arm yourself with tools to fight off cybercrime.