Hackers use porn apps to extort cash from users

Hackers are using viruses disguised as pornographic mobile apps as “ransomware” to extort large sums of money from users whose devices are blocked until the ransom is paid.

While pornography has been used for some time by hackers to install malware on a device, the use of it to extort a ransom from the user is a newer phenomenon.

US internet security firm Zscaler has published details about the android app “Adult Player”. It discovered that the app lured victims to, what they assumed to be, a pornographic video player on their device.

However, when the person started using the app, the virus would look for certain rights on the phone, in much the same way as many legitimate apps would do. It would then detect whether the user had a forward facing camera and would take a picture of the person when they were using the app.

A ransom message telling the person they had been detected looking at illegal material and that the device was being locked would then appear. Even if the device was rebooted the message would still remain on the screen. The only way to get rid of it was to pay the “ransom” of $500 (€450) via PayPal.

As well as publicising the threat from the app, Zscaler was able to reveal how to unblock a screen which is locked by a virus. It said that to remove the ransomware users can:

- boot the device into safe mode (entering “safe mode” varies depending on the device). Safe mode boots the device with default settings without running third party apps.

- Uninstalling ransomware from device requires you to first remove administrator privilege. To do the same, go to Settings --> Security --> Device Administrator and select ransomware app, then deactivate.

Once this is done, you can go to Settings --> Apps --> Uninstall ransomware app.” Zscaler said it had discovered other similar apps using the same ransomware. Earlier this year an app called Porn Droid put a warning message, apparently from the FBI, and also demanded a $500 payment to unlock an infected device.

“To avoid being victim of such ransomware, it is always best to download apps only from trusted app stores, such as Google Play,” Zscaler said. “This can be enforced by unchecking the option of “Unknown Sources” under the “Security” settings of your device.” A report from Intel and McAfee last month highlighted the rapid growth of ransomware. It found that the detected instances of new ransomware grew by 58% in the second quarter of 2015 to more than 1.2 million bringing the overall total to more than four million.

Meanwhile, further details are likely to emerge today about Apple’s new technology which will enable users to block adverts on their phones and iPads when using the Safari browser. Its new iOS 9 operating system will be compatible with content blocking extensions which people will be able to download from the App Store. The content which can be blocked will include images, pop-ups and cookies.

The move may be welcome to users who are sick of being distracted by adverts for products and other content they did not want to see, but it will come as a major financial blow to those who place the adverts there.

Global Mobile Advertising revenue grew by almost 65% to €24 billion in 2014. The Internet Advertising Bureau said the move may hurt medium- or small-sized sites operating on tight margins.

IAB’s director of data and industry programmes Stephen Chester told the BBC news organisations’ revenues are under fire as print circulations diminish but online audiences grow.

“Those organisations are having to reshape to adapt to the digital world and ultimately this could break them or put them at risk,” he said.


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