WASHINGTON (CIRCA) -- School administrators, business owners and various other people across the U.S. and Canada received some strange emails on Thursday threatening them to pay $20,000 worth of Bitcoin or risk a deadly explosion.
The scam's success in extorting money remains unclear, but what it did accomplish was putting dozens, if not hundreds, of law enforcement agencies and emergency personnel on high alert, likely at an extremely high cost.
"What's interesting is now with the internet, the scale at which you can pull something like that off is substantially different," Jared Demott, a cybersecurity expert with VDA Labs, told WWMT.
Bomb threat hoaxes and financial scams have been around for some time, but their scope has historically been limited. A perpetrator once had to phone in a single bomb threat; now they can email thousands with one click. A phone scammer can now do the same, and collect money almost anonymously through Bitcoin.
The perpetrator of Thursday's threats remains unknown, but thanks to digital platforms and cryptocurrency, their handiwork was a national phenomenon. These tools make it so a single individual, a criminal network, or an entire country can pull of digital scams -- and for next to nothing -- explained Samuel Dorshimer, an energy, economics and security researcher for the Center for a New American Security.
"I think it's definitely going to increase over the next couple of years for sure because it's so easy to do, anyone can do it. And if you are a criminal organization, or even a nation state, its an easy way to raise a bunch of money and move that money around very easily," said Dorshimer.
The Kim regime in North Korea is notorious for engaging in ransom scams as a way to raise some much-needed capital, especially as international sanctions have continued to restrict the hermit kingdom's cash flow.
But the threat goes beyond just finance. The fact that so many of the country's security resources were activated for what turned out to be a hoax could signal a vulnerability to adversaries like Russia and China that could be exploited.
"I'm sure that they are paying attention to something like this," said Dorshimer. "I think they are definitely seeing how simple it can be to cause major disruption with very little effort whatsoever. "
To make the matter worse, cyber attacks are comparatively cheap. The barrier to entry for something like a nuclear weapon is quite high, but there are a variety of cyber attacks that require nothing more than some computer equipment, basic software tools, and the right expertise. Dorshimer believes even near-peer adversaries like Russia and China could see these kinds of scams as a useful tool.
"If China for example is upset over something in the trade war, they can easily launch some sort of very minor, cheap cyber attack and cause huge disruption in response," he explained.
Cyber experts agree that there likely to only be more of these kinds of scams and attacks in the future. As more of the world becomes connected, more opportunity opens up for nefarious actors.