PROTECT YOURSELF FROM HACK ATTACK [Wales on Sunday (Wales)]
(Wales on Sunday (Wales) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) What do these viruses do? The hackers have been spreading viruses known as GOZeuS and CryptoLocker.
The first hides within attachments in emails that when opened give computer access to hackers, who use the software to scan devices for valuable information.
CryptoLocker is a secondary threat that activates if no valuable data is found, and this malware locks the computer, demanding a ransom to grant access again.
How much damage have they done? US law enforcement agencies believe the hackers implanted viruses on hundreds of thousands of computers around the world, seized customers' bank information and stole more than $100m (Pounds 60m) from businesses and consumers.
In one scheme, the criminals infected computers with malicious software that captured bank account numbers and passwords, then used that information to secretly divert millions from victims' bank accounts to themselves.
In another, they locked hacking victims out of their own computers, secretly encrypted personal files on the machines and returned control to the users only when ransom payments of several hundred dollars were made.
"The criminals effectively held for ransom every private email, business plan, child's science project, or family photograph - every single important and personal file stored on the victim's computer," said Leslie Caldwell, head of the Justice Department's criminal division.
Who is behind it? The US Justice Department has announced charges against one Russian man accused of masterminding the effort, describing his gang's cyber threats as sophisticated, lucrative and global.
Working with officials in more than 10 other countries, the FBI and other agencies recently seized computer servers that were central to the crimes, which affected hundreds of thousands of computers. The FBI called the alleged ringleader, Evgeniy Bogachev, 30, one of the most prolific cyber criminals in the world and issued a "wanted" poster that lists his online monikers and describes him as a boating enthusiast.
Bogachev's operation, prosecutors say, consisted of criminals in Russia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom who were assigned different roles within the conspiracy.
He faces criminal charges in Pittsburgh, where he was named in a 14-count indictment, and in Nebraska, where a criminal complaint was filed.
He has not been arrested but deputy attorney general James Cole said US authorities were in contact with Russia to try to bring him into custody.
Have there been any high-profile victims? Many of the known losers have been in the United States. They have included an American Indian tribe in Washington state; an insurance company and a firm that runs assisted living centres in Pennsylvania; a police department in Massachusetts; a pest control company in North Carolina; and a restaurant operator in Florida.
The Pittsburgh indictment also accuses Bogachev's group of trying to siphon hundreds of thousands of dollars from the bank accounts of Haysite Reinforced Plastics of Erie, in north-western Pennsylvania, on a single day in 2011.
According to the indictment, two of the transfers went through - one for about 198,000 dollars (Pounds 118,500) and one for about 175,000 dollars (Pounds 104,700) - but multiple other attempted transfers did not.
A Florida bank lost nearly $7m (Pounds 4m) through an unauthorised wire transfer. The Swansea, Massachusetts, police department, on the other hand, lost $750 (Pounds 450) when it paid a ransom demanded by the malicious software that infected its computers.
What should you do - and how urgent is it? The National Crime Agency last week said that computer users in the UK had just a "two- week period" to protect themselves.
In a statement on its website, the agency encouraged internet users to "protect themselves against powerful malicious software" by checking that their anti-virus software is up-to-date, and running scans to ensure that all applications are running correctly.
Andy Archibald, Deputy Director of the NCA's National Cyber Crime Unit, said: "Nobody wants their personal financial details, business information or photographs of loved ones to be stolen or held to ransom by criminals. By making use of this twoweek window, huge numbers of people in the UK can stop that from happening to them.
"Whether you find online security complicated or confusing, or simply haven't thought about keeping your personal or of-fice computers safe for a while, now is the time to take action.
"Our message is simple: update your operating system and make this a regular occurrence, update your security software and use it and, think twice before clicking on links or attachments in unsolicited emails."
How do I know it will work? The FBI in the US has claimed success in disrupting a hacking network, meaning that security updates will be particularly effective in the short term.
Lamar Bailey, director of security research and development at software company Tripwire, said security updates didn't wipe out the viruses but would make it harder for them to do anything damaging.
He said: "The design of these malware packages make it nearly impossible to completely wipe out, but a co-ordinated attack can cause damage.
"While these organisations are attacking the command and control servers, countries are rolling out a massive consumer education programme to help clean up infected systems and reduce the number of vulnerable systems available for infection.
"The plan is to attack the parasite hard for two weeks while removing as many viable hosts as possible at the same time so that propagation targets will be limited after the attacks subside.
"This will not eliminate the malware but could in theory make it much harder for the operators to use and could cause massive financial loss for them."
UK-based internet awareness group Get Safe Online also posted on its own website, asking users to pay attention to the advice and take advantage of this event to improve their security.
The group has posted advice on monitoring potentially malicious email, as well as links to free anti-virus software.
"This warning is not intended to cause you panic but we cannot over-stress the importance of taking these steps immediately," said Get Safe Online in a statement. "This is because the UK's National Crime Agency has taken temporary control of the communications used to connect with infected computers, but expects only a very limited window of opportunity to ensure you are protected."
Are these the only viruses circulating online? The web has been the victim of several serious security breaches in recent months, with the effects of the Heartbleed bug still being felt.
The bug took advantage of a flaw in the OpenSSL software that is designed to encrypt and protect data as it is exchanged online.
Several websites, including parental advice site Mumsnet, were hacked as a result of the flaw.
Five Chinese military hackers were also recently accused of stealing trade secrets from American firms.
Both sets of hackers relied on similar tactics - including sending emails to unsuspecting victims that installed malware - but the Chinese defendants were government officials who sought information that could bring Chinese companies a competitive advantage.
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