Phobos (.help) Ransomware

Also Known As: Phobos (.help) virus
Distribution: Low
Damage level: Severe

Phobos (.help) ransomware removal instructions

What is Phobos (.help)?

Discovered by GrujaRS, Phobos (.help) is a part of the Phobos ransomware family. The cyber criminals who designed this malicious program use it to encrypt data and force victims to pay a ransom. Like most ransomware-type programs, Phobos (.help) renames each encrypted file. In this case, it changes filenames by adding the ".help" extension plus the email address of Phobos (.help) developers, and a unique victim ID. For example, "1.jpg" might become "1.jpg.id[1E857D00-1016].[randal_inman@aol.com].help". Additionally, this ransomware creates a ransom message in the "info.hta" (which displays a pop-up window) and "info.txt" files that contain information about how to decrypt files and contact cyber criminals. Updated variants of this ransomware use ".[helprecover@foxmail.com].help", ".[randiecoates@aol.com].help", ".[lewisswaffield.a@aol.com].help", ".[lachi lachi@aol.com].help" and ".[tidwell.thibaud@aol.com].help" extensions for encrypted files.

The "info.txt" file contains a number of email addresses (randal_inman@aol.com and gherardobaxter@aol.com) and a Jabber IDentifier (phobos_helper@xmpp.jp) that can be used to contact the cyber criminals who created Phobos (.help). More detailed information is provided in the pop-up window and info.hta file. It sates that, before paying any ransom, victims can send five files that the developers will decrypt free of charge. To decrypt the remaining files, however, victims must purchase a decryption tool. Payment must be made using the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. The cost of a decryption tool is unknown, however, it is likely that these cyber criminals will issue the cost after they are contacted via one of the email addresses (or Jabber). The pop-up window also contains information about how to obtain Bitcoins and install and set up a Jabber account. It also states that none of the encrypted files should be renamed or other tools used to decrypt them. According to Phobos (.help) developers, this might increase the cost of a decryption or lead to permanent data loss. Most encryptions caused by ransomware are impossible to decrypt without contacting the cyber criminals who created the program (only ransomware developers hold the decryption tools). Note that no cyber criminals can be trusted. They send none of the promised decryption tools, even if their ransom demands are met. The best way to recover files without contact these criminals is to restore them from a data backup.

Screenshot of a message encouraging users to pay a ransom to decrypt their compromised data:

Phobos (.help) decrypt instructions

Ransomware-type programs are all very similar. Some other examples are Virus Hermes, Mogera, and Sysfrog. Typically, they encrypt data (files) and keep in this state unless a ransom is paid. The main differences are usually cost of a decryption tool/key and cryptography algorithm (symmetric or asymmetric) used to encrypt data. In most cases, encryptions caused by ransomware cannot be decrypted without using the correct tools/keys. This is possible only if the ransomware is not fully developed (has bugs, flaws). To avoid data loss, maintain regular backups and store them on remote servers (such as Cloud) or unplugged storage devices.

How did ransomware infect my computer?

It is unknown exactly how cyber criminals proliferate Phobos (.help) ransomware. Most cyber criminals use spam email campaigns, trojans, fake software updaters, dubious software download sources and software 'cracking' tools. When they use spam campaigns, they send emails with attached malicious files. The main point is to trick recipients into opening them or web links that lead to those files. Some examples of attachments that cyber criminals send are Microsoft Office documents, PDFs, archive files such as RAR, ZIP, executables (.exe and other files) JavaScript files and so on. Once opened (executed), these files infect computers with ransomware or other malware. Trojans are malicious programs that proliferate other programs of type, including ransomware. If installed, they cause chain infections. Fake (unofficial) software updaters usually infect systems by downloading and installing malware rather than the updates or fixes. They can be used to exploit bugs and flaws of installed, outdated software. Dubious download sources such as Peer-to-Peer networks, free file hosting websites, freeware download websites, unofficial pages and other sources of this kind can be used by cyber criminals to proliferate malware. They use this software or file download sources to present malicious files as legitimate. If people download and open them, they install malicious software. Another way that malware is proliferated is through software 'cracking' tools. People use these tools hoping to bypass activation of licensed software, however, these tools often download and install malware rather than activating any software.

Threat Summary:
Name Phobos (.help) virus
Threat Type Ransomware, Crypto Virus, Files locker
Encrypted Files Extension .help (this ransomware also appends filenames with the victim's unique ID and developer's email address).
Ransom Demanding Message HTML application (info.hta), info.txt text file.
Cyber Criminal Contact gherardobaxter@aol.com, phobos_helper@xmpp.jp, randal_inman@aol.com
Detection Names Avast (Win32:Trojan-gen), BitDefender (Gen:Variant.Mikey.98422), ESET-NOD32 (a variant of Win32/Filecoder.Phobos.A), Kaspersky (Trojan-Ransom.Win32.Blocker.maun), Full List Of Detections (VirusTotal)
Symptoms Cannot open files stored on your computer, previously functional files now have a different extension (for example, my.docx.locked). A ransom demand message is displayed on your desktop. Cyber criminals demand payment of a ransom (usually in bitcoins) to unlock your files.
Distribution methods Infected email attachments (macros), torrent websites, malicious ads.
Damage All files are encrypted and cannot be opened without paying a ransom. Additional password-stealing trojans and malware infections can be installed together with a ransomware infection.
Malware Removal (Windows)

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How to protect yourself from ransomware infections?

To prevent computer infections, be careful while downloading, installing, updating software and opening attachments (or web links) presented in received emails. Avoid opening files that are attached to irrelevant emails received from unknown, suspicious addresses. Download software or files using official and trustworthy websites and avoid using the sources mentioned above. Update installed software with implemented functions or tools provided by official software developers only. Third party tools cannot be trusted. Do not activate software or operating systems with 'cracking' tools. This is illegal and often leads to installation of malware. Have reputable anti-virus or anti-spyware software installed and keep it enabled. If your computer is already infected with Phobos (.help), we recommend running a scan with Malwarebytes for Windows to automatically eliminate this ransomware.

Text presented in Phobos (.help) ransomware pop-up window ("info.hta") file:

All your files have been encrypted!
All your files have been encrypted due to a security problem with your PC. If you want to restore them, write us to the e-mail randal_inman@aol.com
Write this ID in the title of your message 1E857D00-1016
In case of no answer in 24 hours write us to this e-mail:gherardobaxter@aol.com
If there is no response from our mail, you can install the Jabber client and write to us in support of phobos_helper@xmpp.jp
You have to pay for decryption in Bitcoins. The price depends on how fast you write to us. After payment we will send you the decryption tool that will decrypt all your files.
Free decryption as guarantee
Before paying you can send us up to 5 files for free decryption. The total size of files must be less than 10Mb (non archived), and files should not contain valuable information. (databases,backups, large excel sheets, etc.)
How to obtain Bitcoins
The easiest way to buy bitcoins is LocalBitcoins site. You have to register, click 'Buy bitcoins', and select the seller by payment method and price.
hxxps://localbitcoins.com/buy_bitcoins
Also you can find other places to buy Bitcoins and beginners guide here:
hxxp://www.coindesk.com/information/how-can-i-buy-bitcoins/
Jabber client installation instructions:
Download the jabber (Pidgin) client from https://pidgin.im/download/windows/
After installation, the Pidgin client will prompt you to create a new account.
Click "Add"
In the "Protocol" field, select XMPP
In "Username" - come up with any name
In the field "domain" - enter any jabber-server, there are a lot of them, for example - exploit.im
Create a password
At the bottom, put a tick "Create account"
Click add
If you selected "domain" - exploit.im, then a new window should appear in which you will need to re-enter your data:
User
password
You will need to follow the link to the captcha (there you will see the characters that you need to enter in the field below)
If you don't understand our Pidgin client installation instructions, you can find many installation tutorials on youtube - hxxps://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=pidgin+jabber+install
Attention!
Do not rename encrypted files.
Do not try to decrypt your data using third party software, it may cause permanent data loss.
Decryption of your files with the help of third parties may cause increased price (they add their fee to our) or you can become a victim of a scam.

Screenshot of Phobos (.help) text file ("info.txt"):

Phobos (.help) text file

Text presented in the text file:

!!! All of your files are encrypted !!!
To decrypt them send e-mail to this address: randal_inman@aol.com.
If we don't answer in 48h., send e-mail to this address: gherardobaxter@aol.com
If there is no response from our mail, you can install the Jabber client and write to us in support of phobos_helper@xmpp.jp

Screenshot of files encrypted by Phobos (.help) (".help" extension):

Files encrypted by Phobos (.help)

Phobos (.help) ransomware removal:

Instant automatic malware removal: Manual threat removal might be a lengthy and complicated process that requires advanced computer skills. Malwarebytes is a professional automatic malware removal tool that is recommended to get rid of malware. Download it by clicking the button below:
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Quick menu:

Isolating the infected device:

Some ransomware-type infections are designed to encrypt files within external storage devices, infect them, and even spread throughout the entire local network. For this reason, it is very important to isolate the infected device (computer) as soon as possible.

Step 1: Disconnect from the internet.

The easiest way to disconnect a computer from the internet is to unplug the Ethernet cable from the motherboard, however, some devices are connected via a wireless network and for some users (especially those who are not particularly tech-savvy), disconnecting cables may seem troublesome. Therefore, you can also disconnect the system manually via Control Panel:

Navigate to the "Control Panel", click the search bar in the upper-right corner of the screen, enter "Network and Sharing Center" and select search result: Disconnecting computer from the Internet (step 1)

Click the "Change adapter settings" option in the upper-left corner of the window: Disconnecting computer from the Internet (step 2)

Right-click on each connection point and select "Disable". Once disabled, the system will no longer be connected to the internet. To re-enable the connection points, simply right-click again and select "Enable". Disconnecting computer from the Internet (step 3)

Step 2: Unplug all storage devices.

As mentioned above, ransomware might encrypt data and infiltrate all storage devices that are connected to the computer. For this reason, all external storage devices (flash drives, portable hard drives, etc.) should be disconnected immediately, however, we strongly advise you to eject each device before disconnecting to prevent data corruption:

Navigate to "My Computer", right-click on each connected device and select "Eject": Ejecting external storage devices

Step 3: Log-out of cloud storage accounts.

Some ransomware-type might be able to hijack software that handles data stored within "the Cloud". Therefore, the data could be corrupted/encrypted. For this reason, you should log-out of all cloud storage accounts within browsers and other related software. You should also consider temporarily uninstalling the cloud-management software until the infection is completely removed.

Identify the ransomware infection:

To properly handle an infection, one must first identify it. Some ransomware infections use ransom-demand messages as an introduction (see the WALDO ransomware text file below).

Identify ransomware-type infection (step 1)

This, however, is rare. In most cases, ransomware infections deliver more direct messages simply stating that data is encrypted and that victims must pay some sort of ransom. Note that ransomware-type infections typically generate messages with different file names (for example, "_readme.txt", "READ-ME.txt", "DECRYPTION_INSTRUCTIONS.txt", "DECRYPT_FILES.html", etc.). Therefore, using the name of a ransom message may seem like a good way to identify the infection. The problem is that most of these names are generic and some infections use the same names, even though the delivered messages are different and the infections themselves are unrelated. Therefore, using the message filename alone can be ineffective and even lead to permanent data loss (for example, by attempting to decrypt data using tools designed for different ransomware infections, users are likely to end up permanently damaging files and decryption will no longer be possible even with the correct tool).

Another way to identify a ransomware infection is to check the file extension, which is appended to each encrypted file. Ransomware infections are often named by the extensions they append (see files encrypted by Qewe ransomware below).

Identify ransomware-type infection (step 2)

This method is only effective, however, when the appended extension is unique - many ransomware infections append a generic extension (for example, ".encrypted", ".enc", ".crypted", ".locked", etc.). In these cases, identifying ransomware by its appended extension becomes impossible.

One of the easiest and quickest ways to identify a ransomware infection is to use the ID Ransomware website. This service supports most existing ransomware infections. Victims simply upload a ransom message and/or one encrypted file (we advise you to upload both if possible).

Identify ransomware-type infection (step 3)

The ransomware will be identified within seconds and you will be provided with various details, such as the name of the malware family to which the infection belongs, whether it is decryptable, and so on.

Example 1 (Qewe [Stop/Djvu] ransomware):

Identify ransomware-type infection (step 4)

Example 2 (.iso [Phobos] ransomware):

Identify ransomware-type infection (step 5)

If your data happens to be encrypted by a ransomware that is not supported by ID Ransomware, you can always try searching the internet by using certain keywords (for example, ransom message title, file extension, provided contact emails, cryptowallet addresses, etc.).

Search for ransomware decryption tools:

Encryption algorithms used by most ransomware-type infections are extremely sophisticated and, if the encryption is performed properly, only the developer is capable of restoring data. This is because decryption requires a specific key, which is generated during the encryption. Restoring data without the key is impossible. In most cases, cyber criminals store keys on a remote server, rather than using the infected machine as a host. Dharma (CrySis), Phobos, and other families of high-end ransomware infections are virtually flawless, and thus restoring data encrypted without the developers' involvement is simply impossible. Despite this, there are dozens of ransomware-type infections that are poorly developed and contain a number of flaws (for example, the use of identical encryption/decryption keys for each victim, keys stored locally, etc.). Therefore, always check for available decryption tools for any ransomware that infiltrates your computer.

Finding the correct decryption tool on the internet can be very frustrating. For this reason, we recommend that you use the No More Ransom Project and this is where identifying the ransomware infection is useful. The No More Ransom Project website contains a "Decryption Tools" section with a search bar. Enter the name of the identified ransomware, and all available decryptors (if there are any) will be listed.

Searching for ransomware decryption tools in nomoreransom.org website

Restore files with data recovery tools:

Depending on the situation (quality of ransomware infection, type of encryption algorithm used, etc.), restoring data with certain third-party tools might be possible. Therefore, we advise you to use EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Pro. This tool supports over a thousand data types (graphics, video, audio, documents, etc.) and it is very intuitive (little knowledge is necessary to recover data).

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EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Pro

By downloading any software listed on this website you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use. Trial version of EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Pro is capable of scanning drives and listing recoverable files - to restore them, you must purchase a license.

Step 1: Perform a scan.

Hover your mouse over the partition you wish to scan and select "Scan". You can also select a specific folder, or click shortcut icons to scan the Desktop or Recycle Bin: Scanning the storage drive with EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard PRO (step 1)

Wait for EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Pro to complete the scan. The scanning duration depends on the volume of files (both in quantity and size) that you are scanning (for example, several hundreds gigabytes could take over an hour to scan). Therefore, be patient during the scanning process. We also advise against modifying or deleting existing files, since this might interfere with the scan. If you add additional data (for example, downloading files/content) while scanning, this will prolong the process: Scanning the storage drive with EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard PRO (step 2)

Step 2: Recover data.

Once the process is complete, select the folders/files you wish to restore and simply click "Recover". Note that some free space on your storage drive is necessary to restore data. Note also that the trial version of EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Pro is only capable of scanning drives and listing recoverable files - to restore them, you must purchase a license: Recovering data with EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Pro

Step 3: Save the scan session (optional).

We recommend that you save the scanning session once you have completed recovery, in case you decide to recover additional files later. Simply click the "Save Scan Session" icon in the upper-right corner of the screen and choose the location for the file to be saved. This will save a lot of time, since you will not need to re-scan the storage drive the next time you wish to restore something. Bear in mind, however, that data removed after the scanning session has finished will not be listed: Saving scan session in EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Pro

Create data backups:

Proper file management and creating backups is essential for data security. Therefore, always be very careful and think ahead.

Partition management: We recommend that you store your data in multiple partitions and avoid storing important files within the partition that contains the entire operating system. If you fall into a situation whereby you cannot boot the system and are forced to format the disk on which the operating system is installed (in most cases, this is where malware infections hide), you will lose all data stored within that drive. This is the advantage of having multiple partitions: if you have the entire storage device assigned to a single partition, you will be forced to delete everything, however, creating multiple partitions and allocating the data properly allows you to prevent such problems. You can easily format a single partition without affecting the others - therefore, one will be cleaned and the others will remain untouched, and your data will be saved. Managing partitions is quite simple and you can find all necessary information on Microsoft's documentation web page.

Data backups: The most reliable backup method is to use an external storage device and keep it unplugged. Copy your data to an external hard drive, flash (thumb) drive, SSD, HDD, or any other storage device, unplug it and store it in a dry place away from sun and extreme temperatures. This method is, however, quite inefficient, since data backups and updates need to be made regularly. You can also use a cloud service or remote server. Here, an internet connection is required and there is always the chance of a security breach. Therefore, you should consider using an application to create data backups locally.

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EaseUS Todo Backup

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We recommend using the EaseUS Todo Backup application. The "Home" edition of EaseUS Todo Backup is usually more than adequate for regular users, however, the "Business" edition is more suitable for companies and large computer networks. The EaseUS Todo Backup application provides extensive data protection features. You can easily create backups, and encrypt and compress them for enhanced protection and storage saving purposes. It also allows you to set backup schedules, create bootable devices, and restore the system if a crash occurs. You can easily choose where to store the created backup: locally; uploaded to an external drive; FTP; cloud storage, or elsewhere. In summary, EaseUS Todo Backup is an all-in-one tool, which provides all features required to properly backup your data.

Creating a data backup:

The backup process is virtually identical regardless of the item (file, partition, entire system) you wish to backup. Taking the File Backup feature as an example:

Step 1: Choose which item to backup.

Click on the "Menu" icon in the upper-left corner of the screen to reveal the menu and select "File Backup": Creating data backups with EaseUS Todo Backup tool (step 1)

Select the files you want to backup. You can also enter a name and description of the backup that will be created: Creating data backups with EaseUS Todo Backup tool (step 2)

Step 2: Change the default settings.

The EaseUS Todo Backup application provides a variety of additional options that can be added/modified while creating the backup. For example, you can encrypt data (add a password), select the compression rate (how much the backup should be compressed), performance (how many system resources should be allocated), add an email notification (you receive an email once the process is complete) and so on.

To open the options window, click the "Backup options" button in the lower-left corner of the screen: Creating data backups with EaseUS Todo Backup tool (step 3)

Select the settings you want to change and click "Save". You can also reset your changes by clicking "Reset to initial settings": Creating data backups with EaseUS Todo Backup tool (step 4)

Step 3: Select the backup destination.

As mentioned above, EaseUS Todo Backup allows you to choose where backups are saved - locally or externally.

Click the "Browse..." button and select the location you want the backup to be saved: Creating data backups with EaseUS Todo Backup tool (step 5)

Step 4: Safety measures and process completion.

Depending on the location you have chosen, there are a number of measures you should or should not take. If you are uploading to an internet-connected location (for example, Cloud storage, FTP, etc.), be sure to maintain your internet connection, otherwise you will have to start again. The same applies to external storage devices - do not unplug them until the process is complete.

The progress bar displays estimated time remaining until completion. Large backups (hundreds of gigabytes) can take hours to create (depending on storage device speed, internet connection, etc.). Therefore, the application also allows you to optionally choose what the system should do (shut down, sleep or hibernate) once the process has finished: Creating data backups with EaseUS Todo Backup tool (step 6)

The best way to avoid damage from ransomware infections is to maintain regular up-to-date backups.

About the author:

Tomas Meskauskas

Tomas Meskauskas - expert security researcher, professional malware analyst.

I am passionate about computer security and technology. I have an experience of over 10 years working in various companies related to computer technical issue solving and Internet security. I have been working as an author and editor for pcrisk.com since 2010. Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn to stay informed about the latest online security threats. Contact Tomas Meskauskas.

PCrisk security portal is brought by a company RCS LT. Joined forces of security researchers help educate computer users about the latest online security threats. More information about the company RCS LT.

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Malware activity

Global malware activity level today:

Medium threat activity

Increased attack rate of infections detected within the last 24 hours.

QR Code
Phobos (.help) virus QR code
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