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Cyberattack Culprits Demand Ransom Be Paid In Bitcoins


If you were a victim of this global cyberattack that hit over 150 countries the last few days, you would have seen a message pop up on your computer. It demanded you pay hundreds of dollars to access your files. To pay, you had to use bitcoin. You wonder what that is? You're not alone.


STEPHEN COLBERT: Now, if you don't know what bitcoin is, want to buy some bitcoin?


That was Stephen Colbert back in 2013 when bitcoin, an anonymous form of online currency, was just becoming popular. Many people didn't really understand what it was, and four years later, many people still don't.

SEAN SULLIVAN: I'm a computer nerd, and I think bitcoin is still kind of confusing, so that is actually the most difficult part for most people.

GREENE: That computer nerd is Sean Sullivan with the Helsinki-based cybersecurity firm F-Secure. Hackers use bitcoin because it is anonymous and cannot be traced easily, but actually paying ransom in bitcoin can be daunting.

You have to set up a virtual wallet. Then you have to link it to your bank account or your credit card. And then you have to find somewhere to actually buy bitcoin.

MARTIN: So, of course, hackers want their money, so they want to make this easier. They're actually offering customer support. They send you links to bitcoin tutorials. They even have chat rooms where a member of the hacking group can help you out.

Sullivan's company wanted to test just how good the customer service was, so they had someone who's not a computer expert download five viruses and then ask the hackers for help paying ransom.

SULLIVAN: We got very personalized support via email to very - somewhat personal via forms, to some ignored us completely. We could figure it out. We could figure it out. If we didn't, they didn't care.

GREENE: And the hackers were very understanding. Apparently, they would be willing to extend the ransom deadline. And Sullivan says that when the customer service was good, I mean, it was really good.

SULLIVAN: There's even been some anecdotal cases of ransomers actually remote controlling the victim's computers in order to help them run the decryption tool because the victim's having trouble running the tool.

GREENE: Some of the hackers were even willing to engage in bitcoin bargaining to lower the ransom.

MARTIN: Yeah, so pretty sure my cable company could take some pointers from these guys.

GREENE: Ouch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.