Ransomware: What it is, why you should care, what you can do to protect against it

    Have you been keeping up with the news lately? Maybe you’ve heard about a new kind of attack that’s causing a lot of problems: ransomware.

    Ransomware’s been in the news lately because criminals have been holding the computers and data of major institutions hostage, like hospitals and universities. These attacks have forced some victims to stop using their computers entirely.  Other victims have given up and paid money to their attackers in the hopes that they can get back control of their computers and their information. Some got their data back, but others didn’t:  you can’t trust criminals.

    Ransomware is a particular kind of virus or malware. Like other viruses and malware, it’s basically a malicious program that gets on your computer or device and runs. There are many ways ransomware can get on your computers or devices. The most common ways are by opening malicious attachments you get through email, or by browsing to sites that push the malware on to your system without you knowing it. What makes malware tricky is the emails can look real, and sometimes legitimate, trustworthy sites are compromised to deliver ransomware.

    Once ransomware gets on your system, it locks up your files, such as documents and photos, by encrypting them with a key that only the attackers know. The encryption makes it pretty much impossible for you or anyone else to get to those file without a key and the only way to get the key is to pay the criminals that attacked you and did this to you. What’s even worse is most Ransomware attackers will tell you there is a limited time to pay (typically three days) or else they’ll destroy the key. Typically, the ransom they demand is high: US$500 is about average for individuals (businesses are charged more).

    Ransomware is a lot like a movie: the bad guy is standing there holding what’s valuable to you hostage, threatening to destroy it and telling you “throw me the money and I’ll throw you the key.”

    I said ransomware is kind of virus or malware. Ransomware is different from other viruses and malware because it goes after the files most important to you and holds them hostage, trying to force you to pay a ransom. Criminals aren’t interested in the files ransomware goes after: years of saved photos, important financial and work documents. But they know those files are important to you. Viruses and malware typically are a nuisance, but ransomware can impact your digital life the same way a fire can impact your real life.

    So what can you do about this? It’s best to prevent ransomware from attacking you in the first place. These steps can help:

    • Ensure you’re running a modern supported operating system. Put another way: don’t be running Windows XP.
    • Confirm your operating system and all your programs are up-to-date. Use Windows Update; enable automatic updates on your devices and for all programs.
    • Be careful when opening attachments. I can’t emphasize this enough. This is an old trick but still works. Think of every attachment you get as unknown and potentially dangerous. Did your friend really send that? Do you have an account with that bank? Are you really expecting a package? When it doubt: check it out.
    • Run modern security software like Trend Micro Internet Security. Security software is critical when it comes to ransomware because it can provide multiple layers of protection needed to prevent ransomware attacks. As tempting as free security packages might be, they’re just not up to the fight when it comes to ransomware.

    The last thing you should do is be prepared for the worst by having good backups. This is a smart thing to do in general. It will help you if your hard drive crashes or if your computer or device is stolen. And with ransomware, it’s critical because this is the sure, proven way to get your files back.

    Ransomware is unlike any other virus or malware attack we’ve seen. So it’s scary. But understanding what it is and what you can do about it can help make it less scary. It’s something you need to take seriously. But there’s no need to panic: just take some steps today and you can rest easier about the threat.

    In the following weeks, I’ll share with you what you can do if you experience a ransomware attack. In the meantime, visit here to learn more.

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