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FBI still frowns on ransomware payments

Even though major companies are paying millions in ransom, the FBI’s policy hasn’t changed

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In just the past month, major companies have made multimillion-dollar payments to ransomware hackers to get their systems back online. But even so, the FBI still discourages ransomware victims from paying up.

"It is our policy, it is our guidance, from the FBI, that companies should not pay the ransom for a number of reasons," FBI director Christopher Wray testified Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee.

For one thing, the FBI believes paying these ransoms only encourages more cyber attacks. For another thing, companies or governments that pay millions to hackers still might not get their data back, "and that's not unknown to happen," Wray said.

Ransomware is one of the biggest cyber security threats facing businesses today. It's a type of malware that attackers can use to lock a device or encrypt its contents so they can extort money from the owner or operator. 

Given its potential to deliver a high return on investment and the relative ease at which it can spread, this type of attack has become extremely popular among cyber criminals. 

Just recently, two major ransomware cases have illustrated the dangers:

On Wednesday, JBS Foods, the world's largest meat processor, confirmed it paid an $11 million ransom to hackers who compromised its IT systems late last month. The company, which produces close to a quarter of the US' beef, fell victim to a ransomware attack on May 30. The firm was forced to suspend all affected systems and, in some areas, shut down production for 24 hours.

Last month, Colonial Pipeline, which transports nearly half the fuel consumed on the East Coast, confirmed the company paid $4.4 million to cyber criminals who launched a ransomware attack against it earlier in the month.

The Department of Justice ended up recovering $2.3 million of that ransomware payment by tracking Bitcoin transfers.

FBI Director Wray told Congress on Thursday that, in addition to helping companies that way, the FBI has sometimes obtained hackers' encryption keys and unlocked the seized data without paying a dime.

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"There are a whole bunch of things we can do to prevent this activity from occurring, whether they pay the ransom or not, if they communicate and coordinate and work closely with law enforcement right out of the gate," he said. "That's I think the most important part."

Last week, the Justice Department announced it was elevating ransomware investigations to a similar status as terrorism. Internal guidance sent to US attorney's offices across the country said ransomware investigations in the field should be centrally coordinated with a new task force in Washington, DC.

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