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NYU Researchers have found that 95% of the ransomware proceeds they were observing were laundered through btc-e

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Criminals use ransomware to extort money from individual users and big businesses. Time

Security experts say having offline backup files are the only way to protect yourself from ransomware. (Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

SAN FRANCISCO — Ransomware surged last year, becoming a multi-million dollar business that's so profitable it's creating a "vicious cycle" of ever-increasing attacks, say researchers at New York University and Google who tracked the criminals' payment networks.

“It’s here to stay,” said Elie Bursztein, anti-abuse research lead at Google.

The findings suggest that — even though the last two large ransomware attacks, WannaCry and Petya, did not seem to raise that much money — the criminal cyber industry in general has much to gain by exploiting users with these attacks.

The research team was able to track ransomware payment addresses and information via public sales of the digital currency bitcoin, watching more than $25 million in payments over the past two years. They plan to present their research on Wednesday in Las Vegas at Black Hat, one of the country's largest computer security conferences.

Ransomware is malicious software that criminals use to first infect a victim's computer and then encrypt the files on it. To regain access to their files, victims must pay a ransom, typically in anonymous digital currency such as bitcoin.

It is increasingly one of the biggest money-makers for cyber criminals, who have been diligently creating new forms of it to boost their earnings. A recent variant, Cerber, is able to fully encrypt a newly-infected computer in under a minute and has consistently made $200,000 per month over the last year, the researchers found.

“It’s a vicious cycle, the more money they make, the more aggressively they spr...

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