How I Accidentally Hack-N-Slashed One of the Most Destructive Computer Viruses in the World


A couple weeks ago, I was running down an Irvine trail after work, distracting myself from the pains of aerobic exercise by listening to one of my all-time favorite podcasts, Radiolab.

This particular episode, called "Darkode," pretty much blew my mind (highly recommended).

It was about a woman who's personal computer suddenly started acting slow.

Ok, that's just about every computer.  But it didn't end there.

After rebooting and doing some troubleshooting, her computer wouldn't speed up. So, she left the computer alone for the weekend and figured she'd try again on Monday.

Monday came.

And boy, was it a Monday.

When she hopped back on her computer, she suddenly found that none of her files, photos, videos, or kitchen sinks were accessible.  Each time she'd click on one, an error message appeared saying the file format could not be read.

What the heck?

Then, a big red popup sprung onto her screen.  It read, "Your personal files have been encrypted" and said that unless she paid $500 US within 7 days in a digital  currency called bitcoin, she would never access her files again. Her files would remain eternally encrypted, or in other words, corrupted to anyone who didn't have the key to un-corrupt them.

Unfortunately, that key sat only with the encryptor -- some computer hacker punk across the rolling seas, all the way over in ever-trustworthy Russia.

What then ensued was a 7-day mad dash as this poor woman, desperate to get her files back, painstakingly followed all instructions to try to convert $500 US to bitcoin and pay the ransom. And I swear, all the forces were against her -- it's quite the story.

In the end (*spoiler alert*), she got the ransom paid, and her files were restored.

Her $500, of course, was not.

For those who have never heard of this kind of thing before, it's known as "ransomware" -- a type of computer virus that permanently blocks access to all your files unless you pay a sum of money within a designated time frame. 

Fail to pay? Bye bye, files.

Apparently ransomware has been around for a few years now, and is becoming more and more common. It can infect your computer through email links, attachments, or even popup ads on websites. Even that cute animated GIF of a puppy you save from Google Images could come with one of these less cute infections, and you and your anti-virus software won't even realize it until it's too late.

And no, unfortunately your dark-rimmed-glasses-wearing-ultra-tech-savvy neighbor can't do squat to help you. Once your computer has been infected and your files have been encrypted, only the hacker with the key can give them back to you.

Terrible, right?

And so, hackers from all over the world continue to target sweet grandmothers' family photo files, graphic designers' Adobe project libraries, and business people's spreadsheets. They tell you to pay the fee, or you'll never see the photos of your first dog or the expense reports you haven't yet turned in, ever again.

Many of these hackers apparently come from standard business environments outside the United States -- with cubicles, HR departments, and possibly even "employee of the month" parking spaces.

The way these businesses make money? By demanding ransoms for our files.

I hope they sleep well at night.

Cuz they probably won't in the next life.

Anyway, while I was listening to the podcast, I counted my blessings that I had never been a victim of ransomware, nor had any of my friends or family members, as far as I knew.

So it must not have been that common. Thank goodness.


My Turn

I work in multimedia, which means I overuse lots of RAM and hard drive space to manage the many digital projects my team and I work on for the company.

A few days ago, I was working on a multimedia project and all was fine and dandy, when I did exactly what I do all the time.  I double-clicked on a picture file to preview it before pulling it into a project. But instead of the picture opening, I got an error message:

"File format is unsupported and cannot be read."

Cannot be read? Why?

I tried again. Same error message.

Suspicious, I tried to open a different picture in the same folder. Again, I got the same error message, and the file wouldn't open.

Odd, especially since that same file had opened without any problems just a minute ago...
I quickly tried to open a couple other file types, and each time, I was greeted by the same error.

So, I looked deeper into the file structure. Strangely enough, I noticed 3 new files that hadn't been there before -- they were all labeled with the same name, but one was a text file, one was an HTML file, and one was some other action-file type I didn't recognize.

Being the meticulously detail-OCD weirdo that I am, I knew that I hadn't put these files on my computer.  And I knew no one else on my team had put them there, either...

And then it hit me.

No way... it couldn't really be that.

I cautiously opened the unknown text file, and sure enough, it only took a second for me to recognize instructions for paying a ransom.

I immediately unplugged my computer's network cable in hopes of not infecting other computers in the building, and rushed into the office next door -- straight to my boss.

"I need the tech team asap," I said. "I think a Russian hacker just gave us a virus that kills all the files on the multimedia drive unless we pay them a ransom."

"Wait, what? Is this a joke?"

Fair question, considering.

"No -- it's for real. I actually just learned about this kind of thing on a podcast. Can you call the tech team over?"

After a brief second spent studying my serious expression and determining it was legit, my boss then jumped up as though his chair had just burst into flames, and within seconds, a tech was in my office, working his anti-virus magic to stop more damage from being done.

Sure enough, it was ransomware.

But... we weren't supposed to know that yet.

Here's why.

In order for a ransomware virus to encrypt your files, it has to scramble each one individually. Going from file to file, one at a time, takes time. Especially on a large multimedia drive with tens of thousands of files, where a single video file can be huge.

So, once the virus starts encrypting, it takes hours or even days to scramble all the files on a hard drive.

It turns out, this particular ransomware starts encrypting files alphabetically -- meaning it scrambles files in folders that start with "A" before moving on to files in folders that start with "B," and so forth.

I had been working in a folder called "Assets."

"Assets" starts with "A."

You've been educated.

This means that the encryption on my computer had just barely begun at the time I had noticed it.

And those 3 new unfamiliar files that had been placed on my computer? Combined, they programmed the popup window that was supposed to show itself later and give me instructions on how to pay the ransom.

But I wasn't supposed to see the instructions yet.  That popup window wasn't scheduled to appear until after the encryption process was completed.

I just happened to be working out of an "A" folder, so I noticed the encryption early. And I just happened to recognize and read the instructional text file long before it had encrypted much of my hard drive, because I just happened to listen to a podcast about this very thing and just happened to be a detail-oriented OCD maniac.

The virus didn't get past "A."


WaBAM!  Mic drop.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't fear some vengeful hacker reading this and taking it as a challenge to do better next time.  Por favor, no...  I am but a small superhero.

Anyway, our tech team was able to isolate and remove the virus quite quickly -- in about an hour.  There were commonly-used files in the "A" folders that had already been encrypted beyond recovery, but with only a fraction of a percent of the drive being touched, the damage was uncharacteristically minimal.  And since our company had completed a regular backup of all of the multimedia data 36 hours prior, it meant I only lost files in the "A" folders that had been created during the last day and a half.

It turned out, I only lost 3 Photoshop files -- a couple hours worth of work.

But then, wouldn't you know it -- when I opened Photoshop, its auto-recovery feature kicked in, and it automatically opened auto-saved recovery versions of the three files I thought I had lost.  

In the end, I lost ZERO work!

What kind of miracle is that?

And I got to live a story straight out of my favorite podcast!  

Ok, I wasn't really hoping for that.  It's much less stressful to just listen to someone else's problems.

But truly, the stars had aligned for me that day, for which I'm grateful to the good Lord above.  I'm always on a tight deadline at work -- and even losing just a couple days of work, plus the time it would have taken to recover it all from the backup copy, would have probably made me want to go outside and beat up anyone on the street who looked like a hacker.

Whatever hackers look like.

The Internet says hackers look like this:

Instead, I got to feel like a virus-destroying superhero.

Which I'm not. 

But I liked feeling like it.

Back Up Your Data

I still have no idea how the ransomware got on my computer.  I don't even know if it was me who opened that floodgate, or someone else who has access to the multimedia drive.  I'm very careful about what files I open, and our company filters and virus protectors block just about everything that isn't business-related.

Truth is, I'll probably never know.  Which makes it that much more unsettling.

Ransomware is all over the Internet, waiting to infect computers -- mostly home computers, but as I witnessed, its targeting more and more business computers these days.  If your computer catches it, you'll likely have to either pay the ransom to recover your files (which is not recommended, because it fuels hackers to continue demanding ransoms), or you lose them.


For-ev-er (Sandlot, anyone?)

I started researching the best solutions for this problem, and multiple websites said the same thing.

Back. Up. Your. Data.

If you regularly back your computer files up on either an external drive (which you then unplug), or better yet, to a cloud service like Google Drive, then if ransomware overtakes your computer, your files are all snug and cozy and backed up.  Then you can bite your thumb at the hackers, reformat, and reload all your files.

A word of caution -- don't rely on regular timed system backups through Windows.  Those can be corrupted, too.  Apparently so can cloud services that are consistently paired with your computer -- like a Dropbox account that appears in your computer hierarchy as an additional drive.

As a filmmaker of 15 years, I have 20+ external hard drives of data I've been waiting to upload and backup on some cloud storage system, as soon as a humongous amount of cloud space became affordable.

Which one has.

Amazon now offers unlimited cloud space for $60/year -- by far the most space for the cheapest price.  And they're not even paying me to say that.

I did a very excited happy dance when I heard about the 60 bucks.

Though I will say -- at this upload speed, by my calculations... all my drives will be backed up by April 2016.

For most people, you don't need unlimited space, and I highly recommend Google Drive.  It's well-priced, and the accessibility and ease of use is awesome.

Google is just awesome.

Don't turn evil someday, k Google?  Cuz I know that all your important executives do all day is read my blog, so this will no doubt leave a deep impression.

In the meantime, to all you readers out there (hi mom), protect yourself and your data by backing it up.  It'll save random hacker-looking people on the sidewalk from being punched in the face.

For now.

Farewell, My Beloved Four-legged Family Member

Before today, it was always fish. I was probably 9 when I found my first goldfish, we'll call him... "Goldfish," belly-up in my fish bowl, surrounded by half a cup of fish food flakes, courtesy of my devastated 4-year-old brother.

What kind of animal eats itself to death?

I suppose you could argue that mankind does that, but that's not what this is about.

Soon after, Goldfish II lasted two days longer than its dead predecessor, for a total of 9 days of life.

A record at the Hales household.

There was never to be a Goldfish III.

Cut to 20+ years later, when I noticed that the blue beta fish on my desk at work suddenly had a new pink steak on its tail. Last time I checked, beta fish don't change colors...

Apparently my beta fish had perished overnight, and in hopes of protecting me from potential sorrow, my team bought and replaced my fish before I knew it was dead, hoping I wouldn't notice.

Isn't that normally done for 5-year-olds?

Anyone who knows me, just nods in understanding.

I felt bad for the fish, but simultaneously laughed my head off at the guilt mixed with sincerity on the faces of my coworkers.

Fish, I can handle.

But what happened this morning, felt more like being hit by a semi-truck.


9 years ago, I was going through a difficult divorce (to friends who never knew -- surprise!), and although I was working at the Happiest Place on Earth at the time, my days at home were dark and lonely.

I spent long nights on my knees praying for companionship -- for something to ease the pain in my life.

I logged onto the computer, ran a Google search on "Italian greyhound puppies for sale, southern California," (I had grown up with that breed) and a new ad in the LA Times popped up. A woman's Italian greyhound just had puppies, and she was looking for loving homes to send them to.

After driving to LA, passing a screening interview (she was serious about making sure they were loving homes), I handed her $400 in cash, and she handed me 3-month-old curious little fawn-colored Savvy.

Who promptly went home and peed on my carpet.

It was adorable.

His name? "Pirates of the Caribbean" was big back then (and still worth watching at the time), and I liked the way Johnny Depp said "Savvy?"

You're judging me.  Rightfully so.

Savvy did all the cute puppy things -- howl three octaves above middle C, hide from the vacuum, poop everywhere except outside -- the works.

After a few weeks of watching his whimpering disappointment when he couldn't physically touch the playful puppy in the mirror door, followed by a stern phone scolding to me from a dog trainer because I "only had one Italian Greyhound when they should always come in pairs," I went back to the LA Times ad lady and brought home Savvy's brother, Comet.
From that day forward, they were inseparable.

Literally, they haven't spent more than a few hours apart since that time.

And suddenly the joys and craziness of raising and training two little dogs, not only distracted me from my own sadness, but it began to heal my soul.

And as dog owners understand well, these two little guys came with their own personalities and innate ability to love unconditionally. Love me unconditionally. And do it during a time where I didn't always feel worth loving.

Comet -- full name is Comet Goofy Doggy Dog -- was the goofy one of the pair. He got his name by running into walls at full speed... like a comet. And he has the biggest heart -- he barks maybe twice a year only to greet people, and he would lie down and take a bullet before stepping on a gnat.

Savvy -- full name is Savvy Max Doggy Dog -- was the alpha.  He was the wise one of the two -- maybe the three of us. He loved to play and cuddle -- those were his love languages, and they were right in sync with mine.

As my only nearby family for seven years, my dogs have seen me through holidays and birthdays, road trips and vacations, celebrations and heartbreaks. I can remember moments of sadness when I would sit on the floor in despair, only to have Savvy approach me, study me carefully, and then curl up next to me and lay his head in my lap. He was always so perceptive, and I was so grateful for his companionship and love.

We took dozens of road trips to Utah over the years.  Savvy was a great traveler.

I carefully trained my dogs, and they did everything from jump through hoops to wipe their butts on the grass on command. They only used the bathroom in a designated 5×3 foot outdoor litter box, always came when called (even if they didn't want to) and they walked directly on my right side, with or without a leash. They did all these things because they loved me and knew it would make me happy, and they knew that I loved them, and I filled their world with praise and appreciation constantly. 


And dog clothes?  Well...

Years ago, I can remember seeing dogs dressed up in clothing, and saying "I will never do that."

Cut to Christmas 2013...

And then there's Christmas 2014...

It's not my fault! Blame PetCo for selling outfits that amplify my dogs' adorable-ness!

And, of course, we couldn't go on road trips without doggy seat belts.

Shut up.

Savvy tested them out when he jumped out of the parked truck once while still fastened in. He just hung there out of the door, moving his legs in attempt to walk, hanging an inch above the ground. I pointed and laughed for at least sixty seconds before freeing him.

Savvy and Comet instantly loved every human being they ever came in contact with.  Anyone who visited our home was greeted by instant cuddles and kisses, and even...*gulp*... "cat people" remarked how much they loved Savvy and Comet.

Not trying to play a game of "my dog is better than your dog" or anything.

But I think my dogs are pretty sweet.

How could you not love something that instantly loves you so unconditionally?

When Spencer and I got married and we became a family of four, Savvy was on cloud nine. Suddenly he had another loving playmate -- and a boy! While I was always his master and priority number one, Savvy always loved playing with the guys. It was his favorite. And soon, he stuck to Spencer like velcro, often climbing on his lap and making computer work a little challenging. Spencer instantly fell in love with Savvy, and often remarked, "I didn't know I could love your dogs so much. They are the best."

Which is why yesterday was one of the saddest days of our lives.

About a week ago, Spencer and I started boxing up our things to move to a small home in Tustin -- a grateful step up from our studio guesthouse.

Around the time we started packing, Savvy started acting a little lethargic. Not greatly -- just subtly. He still walked, did his business, cuddled, came when called, etc., he just wasn't as playful as he usually was.  Other dog owners and online searches told me it was probably anxiety or sadness because of moving -- which is apparently quite common for dogs. Unsure, I kept an eye on him closely, and decided I would call the vet if his condition got any worse. Both he and Comet had been through subtle lethargy before, and they always bounced right back after a couple days.

A couple days later, we were officially moved into our new house, and while Savvy wasn't 100%, he seemed to be doing better than before. He especially perked up when my mom and brother came to stay with us over Labor Day weekend. We all went on walks, played, and had fun.

He seemed just fine a couple days before.

Still, because it had been a few days and he wasn't 100% yet, I decided to call the vet, just to be safe.

I called the vet and described Savvy's lethargic symptoms, and set up an appointment as early as they had open -- for Thursday. Because it was Labor Day weekend, that was the earliest availability they had. But the vet employee didn't seem to think Savvy's condition was an emergency, so I accepted the appointment, grateful that we had something on the calendar.

When Labor Day rolled around, Savvy seemed to be back to his old self. He played and ate normally, went to town on a raw hide bone, and didn't spend so much time in his bed. I was relieved, and both Spencer and I commented repeatedly on how grateful we were that Savvy was doing better.

When nighttime rolled around, we put the sweet dogs to bed, and went to bed ourselves.

Sad Day

It gets really sad here. Reader discretion is advised.

At 2:30 in the morning, Spencer nudged me awake. His voice was concerned.

"Jo -- Savvy's laying next to our bed, and he went to the bathroom on the floor."

I jolted awake. Savvy is very house trained -- this couldn't be good.

Sure enough, Savvy appeared to have collapsed next to our bed, like he was trying to reach us. He was so weak, he couldn't even control his bowels. I pet him and talked to him -- he seemed aware of me and looked at me, but he couldn't do much more.

"We've got to get to the emergency vet," I said.

Spencer stepped over some fresh dog vomit, quickly scooped up Savvy in a blanket, I grabbed my purse, and we ran to the car, leaving Comet whimpering behind us.

The 13-minute drive to the Garden Grove emergency vet was torture. Spencer spoke loving, encouraging words of support to Savvy, trying to keep him awake, while I drove, trying to see the road through my tear soaked eyes.

We ran into the vet and they immediately took Savvy into the back room.

I was a mess. I felt like I was losing my precious boy.

After a few moments, the vet doctor met with us in a private room, and told us that Savvy was in critical condition. He wanted to run some tests to see if the cause was metabolic or due to poisoning.

I was convinced it wasn't poisoning. Savvy was so well-behaved that he wouldn't touch a steak laying on the floor if I didn't give him permission to eat it, plus we were very careful that nothing toxic to dogs was anywhere available. Not to mention, Savvy and Comet always do everything together, and Comet was feeling fine.

I knew it had to be metabolic. But what? A severe doggy virus that literally flared up over night? Cancer?

We would never find out.

The doctor laid out plans that they would keep Savvy until 7am, and then we would transfer him to his regular veterinarian. I suppose I should have been comforted by such planning for the future. But I was not. Deep in my heart, I knew there would be no transferring him.

I asked if we could see him, and they agreed, only for a moment.

They brought us into a private room where Savvy laid, struggling to breathe in his own. We stroked and cuddled him and told him how much we loved him and that he was a good boy. He had moments he seemed to know us, but his breathing was becoming more and more labored. Spencer knocked on the door and the doctors quickly whisked Savvy away.

In the lobby, I signed a $1,200 estimate without a second thought, followed by a $250 release to do CPR should he stop breathing. Only seconds after my credit card was run through the system, an employee rushed out and said they were starting CPR. Spencer and I nodded our thanks between our flow of tears.

We could only sit and wait.

This part may seem a little understandably far fetched to some of you, but I'm going to tell it anyway.

After only a minute or two, I thought I felt Savvy's presence to my left. When I looked that direction, I could see nothing there. But I felt I knew what it meant. Savvy had died, and perhaps his little spirit stopped by for a quick comforting goodbye before he made his way home.

And then he was gone.

A moment after the feeling went away, the doctors asked to meet with us again. Savvy had not survived. He died so quickly, they didn't even get to run most of their tests.

We were devastated.

They let us say our last goodbyes to his poor little body, and then not believing we had any other option, we pre-paid for cremation and left, heartbroken.

Italian greyhounds typically live 14 to 18 years.

Savvy was 8 and a half.

We notified friends and family by phone and social media, and continued crying throughout the day.

My job doesn't offer many sick days, so I had to go to work. Feeling ill and depressed, I skipped breakfast, vouched for glasses instead of contacts, and went to my office, where I closed the shades and reclused myself away from anything with two legs.

Spencer, at home most of the day, comforted and walked a confused Comet, and struggled to study for his math test or unpack a single box.

The clock ticked so slowly.

At 5pm sharp, I was back in my truck, headed home.

As I pulled into our driveway, I heard an SUV pull up behind me. "Hi Jolie," a man's voice said.

I wiped my tears and turned around. It was our new landlord, who lived down the street.
"I'm sorry about your dog. That's really sad. I know he meant a lot to you."

I nodded with gratitude. "Thanks, yeah, it's been a tough day for us."

He continued. "Well, I know it's not much, and I'm not sure if you've already made plans, but you can bury him in the backyard if you'd like."

I paused.


I didn't even think that would ever be an option. Our last landlord would have billed us $200 just for asking.

When he confirmed with his condolences, I rushed into the house, called the vet and asked if they still had Savvy's body.

They did.

We found a nice spot in the backyard under the blossom trees for him. 

Spencer dug a deep hole, then we picked up his body, wrapped in his favorite blanket that I made for him, and buried him with his favorite hippo toy, a ring toy we always used to put on his head (we found more humor in it than he did, but that's ok), a Snoopy card signed by Spencer, Comet (sort of), and me, and a picture of Jesus.

We're religious people, so we decided our dog is religious, too. :p

Spencer digging under the blossoms (bottom right)

Some of the things we buried him with.

We said a prayer and a few words, and filled the grave. I ordered a memorial rock online to mark where he is buried.

While it's been really hard for us, there is some comfort knowing he's at home with us, and that we can see his resting spot from our window. We are so grateful our landlord would think to offer the possibility. My family agreed.

"He is sent from God," my brother James said.

Mormons don't have a lot of doctrine about animals after death, but we do believe that animals have spirits and will be resurrected, just as people are. The common thought is that even our relationships with animals in this life can continue in the next.

I hope that's true.

We miss him so much.

Moving Forward

Some people must read this and think, "it's just a dog." Maybe.

I'll never claim the loss of a pet is comparable to the loss of a person -- that's a new level of pain. But nonetheless, Savvy was family. He understood our emotions and responded accordingly, he entertained us, he wanted nothing but to love and be loved, and during the dark times, he saved me.

That's "just my dog."

Comet, his brother who was left behind, seems to be doing ok.  He looks confused and is more skittish and reclusive, but for the time being, his tail still wags when you talk to him.  We're giving him extra love.

When the time is right, we'll get another Italian greyhound or whippet to be a companion for him.

In the meantime, I am so grateful I had Savvy in my life for as long as I did, and Spencer feels the same way. He was the best dog in the world for us, and gave us so many happy memories to cherish until the day we can see his little doggy tail again.

While he was with us, he loved to play tag (nothing got him more excited than hearing "on your mark, get set, go!"), fetch, tug-o-war, race and play with his brother, sunbathe, cuddle, and sit on our laps.  He often ate his food by taking one piece from the bowl, bring it over to wherever we were, and eat it near us.  He ripped off his dew claw at least once a year, and often wore a bandage on one paw because of it.  When he took off on a fast run, his little booty scooched around until he hit full speed.  He loved learning new tricks for treats or love, and had mastered all the classics - speak, play dead, roll over, shake, hoop, stay, walk on his hind legs, and others.  He loved every human he encountered - with a vengeance.  And they loved him too.

Another torn dew claw.

I will say -- I didn't realize until later what a miracle it had been that Savvy and Comet came into my life at all. Italian greyhound puppies are very rare to come by and are seldom publicized -- the fact that an LA Times ad was posted for the very breed I was looking for just hours before I ran the search, makes me feel like these dogs were -- dare I say -- picked for me as an answer to my prayers.

Atheist friends roll their eyes here.  ;) That's okay.

I continue.

And recently, deep down, I've known Savvy wouldn't be with us for much longer. I just... kinda knew. On Sunday night, when Savvy seemed to be pretty healthy, I welled up with tears during a scene in the film We Bought a Zoo where an elderly tiger is put down. I seldom cry in movies, or frankly anywhere, but I was overcome with emotion at the distinct thought I would soon lose my precious Savvy. I tried to push the thoughts away, in hopes I was wrong. He looked happy and fine.

But when Spencer woke me up at 2:30 Tuesday morning, I knew the time had come.

My brother James, who had developed a special bond with Savvy during the five recent weekends he stayed with us while he competed in a random Chinese pop singing competition, said that when he said goodbye to Savvy on Labor Day, even though Savvy seemed to be in good health, he felt like it was the last time he'd see him.

My brother James with the boys.

I'm so grateful Savvy spent his last days with the people he loved -- me, Spence, James, and my mom.

With Mom.

I don't know why things happen the way they do. I don't know why beloved pets die early, or why good people die young. I don't know why I live in a beautiful free country with running water while someone else fights to survive in a war-torn nation.

But I do know that there must be a purpose in all of this -- a purpose we may not fully understand until long after we leave this place. A purpose that connects us, possibly on more on a subconscious level than we ever realized.

In the meantime, I love and miss my little Sav, and pray that someday I'll see his happy little brown eyes again.

Lord, take care of my sweet little Savvy.

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