“Josh, you have a phone call,” my manager reported.
My heart immediately sank. I had been receiving threatening phone calls for over a week, both at home and at work, and I knew this was another one. The person on the other end wanted money. Or else. He specified a dollar amount, a drop location and a time, and then threatened to kill me if it wasn’t there. He was my best friend.
Pause. Let’s back it up just a bit. Add context. This was circa 1992. I was a high school junior, washing dishes at Ponderosa Steak House a few nights a week to pay off my trusty K Car. I didn’t exactly have much game, let alone any money. But I also didn’t have any enemies that I knew of. That’s why somehow I knew it was my old friend “Jake.”
Jake and I had been best friends a couple years before, spending a couple of inseparable summers together, forming a 2-piece skateboard “gang,” writing really dope gangster raps, and being generally harmless little punks.
Then his parents got divorced around the time we started high school. Like an after-school special, he promptly ditched school in favor of cruising Main Street and smoking weed with his mustachioed older cousin. Needless to say, the skateboard gang disbanded, and Jake and I walked our separate paths.
So a couple years later when those calls came, that car parked across the street, the doorbell rang late at night, I somehow knew it was the two of them. Motive? I was an easy target. I was terrified, and fear is a great motivator. I was sure to pay.
Yes, I am using this story to parallel a ransomware attack. Work with me. There are some obvious physical differences: In this case, I knew my attackers, I had police resources, and, finally, nothing physical had been taken from me. They were not demanding money for me to get my files back, but rather to NOT KILL ME. Different, possibly worse, but nothing tangible had been stripped from me that I had to pay to recover.
However, the emotional similarities are undeniable. Namely, that awful feeling that you no longer control your own destiny. Someone else has life-hacked you and is now pulling the strings. For months after, the sound of the phone ringing caused my fists to clench. Co-workers walked me out to my car after closing. These things make you feel small, vulnerable and exposed. And they are all exacerbated by the feeling of having no good options, and nowhere to really turn for help. And even if you pay them, you have no guarantees that they will leave you alone or even return your files. It is a helpless feeling.
But there is one glaring difference that I would like to draw your attention to. And that is that my situation could not have been prevented. Like any victim, at some point you ask yourself what could I have done differently? You second-guess yourself, and wonder what if I had done this or that. But in my case, there is nothing I could have done differently; no forethought or amount of planning could have stopped it.
With ransomware, however, there are measures you can take to protect yourself. FOLLOW THIS GUIDE for starters. Do not bury your head in the sand and pretend it can’t happen to you. Better to prepare the castle for a siege, because you’d better believe those bad guys are out there somewhere, looking for a way in. With some good disaster planning and a little luck, hopefully you’ll never meet them.
Oh, the Jake fiasco? It ended in small-town theatrics. The police set up a sting, it was summarily bumbled, and the bad guys got away. But it had the desired effect; fear is a great motivator. They never bothered me again.
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