2. every other enterprise on earth, including….
3. ruthless Russian criminals.
Yes, as reported in Sunday’s New York Times, a gang of hacker extortionists called CryptoWall 2.0 treats its ransomware victims with more courtesy and responsiveness than, let's say, Sirius XM. Or McDonald's. Or — by a very wide margin — the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
And I don't mean courtesy in an arch arch-villain sort of way, a la Auric Goldfinger, who was always smiling and hyper-polite to his hostage James Bond (“Do you expect me to talk?” Bond asks, as he’s about to be halved by a laser. “No, Mr. Bond,” replies Goldfinger with a hearty laugh. “I expect you to die!”)
No, I’m talking about going the extra mile to simplify and facilitate a transaction — even if the transaction is ransom to liberate one’s computer files from CryptoWall’s possession. Victims become victims when they open a malware-infected email attachment, whereupon the contents of their hard drives are automatically encrypted by the hackers and rendered inaccessible to the owners.
The hackees then get a message — a ransom note, with low, low prices starting at $500 — with instructions for obtaining a decryption key. If they don’t pay up, the files are automatically destroyed forever.
Now, it turns out that holding 0s and 1s hostage is illegal and highly frowned upon — even in Russia, where “the law” is generally whatever Vladimir Putin wants it to be at a particular moment. So CryptoWall must be careful about how it collects its loot. The crooks can't just open a PayPal account. But they can absolutely use Bitcoin, a virtual currency favored by criminals and 4chaners because it is unconnected to any government or banking system.
Untraceable, in other words.
The thing is, though, Bitcoin is not PayPal, or Visa or Western Union; it is not just a click away. For the ransom payer, it is quite a cumbersome transaction to undertake. Which is why CryptoWall provides a Bitcoin “wallet” that could take credit and debit and convert to Bitcoins. But those transactions can take a week to clear, and victims are given a deadline of exactly seven days to save their files. So, in the spirit of Customer Relations Management, the extortionists provide the location of the victim’s nearest Bitcoin ATM, where cash can be fed into the slot and converted instantly.
As author Alina Simone reports in her Times piece, where she described her own mother’s CryptoWall experience: “That’s how my mom found out about Coin Cafe — from her ransom note. This referral is only one of the handy services CryptoWall provides to ensure a more seamless customer experience. Others include the ability to ‘decrypt one file for free’ and a message interface one can use ‘in case of any problems with payment or having any other questions'."
Yes, they deploy one of those chat pop-ups, so you can get personal attention from a live human being (or very talented bot). This is not only unusual behavior from an organized crime entity, it is Nordstrom territory. Disservice with a smile, you might say.
So, yeah, if you didn’t believe me when my last book came out, I guess we’re in the Relationship Era, all right. That’s when the individualized connection between the brand and the individual becomes paramount, because the reputation of all institutions is the sum of its actions (and inactions) with every single stakeholder. My co-author and I were thinking about Southwest Airlines and Apple, not the cybermafia. But if the shoe fits.
In fact, weirdly, this episode seems drawn from my previous book, Bedfellows — not a business primer but a novel, a semi-comic semi-thriller about Brooklyn racketeers. They were getting squeezed by the economy and the prime-rate, so they fashioned themselves a kinder, gentler mob: the Cozy Nostra. Door-to-door service and instant processing of loans.
Life imitates art. So can Comcast imitate CryptoWall? Well, think of what Goldfinger said: “Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He's fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor…”
If CryptoWall can take the anxiety out of blackmail, maybe someday, if you’re not afraid to dream, your modem can be replaced in a 4-hour window.