Suburban Chicago police department paid $500 ransom to hacker who encrypted its computer files

Associated Press

A suburban Chicago police department paid a hacker a $500 ransom to restore access to data on a police computer that the hacker had disabled through the use of an increasingly popular type of virus.

The police department in Midlothian, a village southwest of Chicago, was hit in January by a form of the Cryptoware virus, which encrypted some files on a department computer, leaving them inaccessible without the encryption key, the Chicago Tribune reported (http://trib.in/17k9Hkv ).

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Midlothian Police Chief Harold Kaufman confirmed the department had been hacked, but declined further comment. A Tribune open records request turned up a village invoice listing the payment with the heading "MPD virus."

An unknown hacker said that if the department wanted to unencrypt the files, it had to pay a ransom in bitcoin, a digital currency that is virtually untraceable, said Calvin Harden Jr., an IT vendor who works with the village.

The village had to make a tough decision, Harden said, and chose to make the payment because going after the hacker might have been more trouble than it was worth.

"Because the backups were also infected, the option was to pay the hacker and get the files unencrypted, which is what we decided to do," he told the newspaper.

The problem of hackers demanding ransoms from law enforcement and government agencies around the country has been spreading over the past year or two, said Fred Hayes, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. The city of Detroit and a sheriff's office in Tennessee recently suffered Cryptoware attacks by ransom-seekers, the Tribune reported.

Hayes said his advice to departments is to back up their data.

"This is something that quite a few people recently ... have been experiencing," he said.

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Information from: Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com