A child grasps a new Apple Inc. iPhone 6s Plus at an Apple store in Palo Alto, California, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015.
David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Jeff John Roberts
August 26, 2016

Ransomware is nasty stuff: cyber-crooks use it to seize a company’s data, and only release it after the target pays thousands of dollars in bitcoin. The scam is only going to get more popular but, for now, there is at least one almost surefire way to prevent it.

Companies that use Apple devices have been virtually untouched by the ransomware epidemic, according to a panel of experts hosted by Dell Data Security in New York this week. The reason is Apple software is more difficult to compromise, which makes it less attractive for the ransomware industry.

The industry is based on a relatively small number of ransomware makers, who often sell or license the tools to smaller criminal fry. So far, the masterminds have eschewed Apple, and focused on familiar targets like older Windows systems.

Attacks directed at Apple are not entirely unknown, however, as an incident this spring reportedly led to ransomware being downloaded on 6,000 computers. But the incident was quickly contained and there do not appear to have been further examples.

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The relative security of Apple may not last forever, however, as the experts predicted that ransomware is likely to spread to mobile devices before long, and that cyber-crooks will try to compromise the latest version of the iPhone operating system (iOS 10).

So why is ransomware becoming so popular? According to Jon Ramsey, the chief technology officer for SecureWorks, two tech recent developments are helping to drive it: more powerful cryptography that makes it easier to lock a computer, and the rise of bitcoin, which makes it easier to collect an anonymous payment.

Ransomware operations, which typically harvest a payment of a few thousand dollars, are also becoming more popular as other forms of cyber-crime like credit card theft become more difficult to pull off or less profitable.

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Brett Hansen, the executive director of Dell Data Security Solutions, added dryly that the cyber-crooks have also improved their “customer service.” Basically, the ransomware operators have made the extortion process easier, which makes it more likely a target will pay. (That’s what a Canadian university did in June, handing over $16,000 to reclaim its computer systems).

While some hold out hope for more “inoculation” software that will make it easier for companies to block or sequester ransomware, the experts were skeptical. According to Zach Lanier of Cylance, the ransomware makers will counter such tactics by designing their tools to target deeper layers of a computer’s architecture, past the file and directory levels, where it will near impossible to detect.

All of this suggests ransomware will be with us for some time and, while owning Apple devices can be a magic bullet, business owner should also take other steps to be on guard. The most obvious of these is to be aware of spear-phishing and other social engineering tactics that crooks use to trick targets into installing the ransomware in the first place.

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