Ransomware is a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid.
It's a thriving new virus that offers hackers a simple, reliable revenue stream. Classic malware sits and waits in the dark corners of your system, hoping that you'll eventually type in personal details like a credit card number they can steal. However, ransomware isn't shy. Once it's on your system, it encrypts your files and holds your data hostage and loudly demands that you pay your attacker directly. The demand often looks something like this:
Amounts demanded from ordinary individuals' personal computers can vary from about $25 to $600, almost always in the online currency, Bitcoin. More is sought from larger organizations like the University of Calgary who just paid $16,000 in a ransomware attack. If you don't pay up within a specified period, your computer will be wiped clean, and you'll lose all your data and files.
How does Ransomware Start?
Ransomware can infect your personal computer a variety of ways including:
- Through email attachments
- While you're browsing untrusted websites
- When you install pirated software
Is paying the ransom my only option?
If your work computer is attacked, immediately alert the IT department. Do not attempt to pay the ransom or otherwise address the problem yourself. Also, please immediately unplug the network cable from the back of the computer or the wall jack to prevent it from spreading.
However, if your personal computer is attacked, there are several steps you can take before you grab your wallet.
- First, if your computer is part of a home network you've set up, immediately disconnect it so the infection doesn't spread to other systems.
- Do you have a backup of your data in the cloud or on an external hard drive?
- If so, you should be able to do a clean reinstall of your operating system and restore your backed up data.
- No access to external backups of your data?
- No luck finding a way to decrypt the Ransomware?
- Decide how important the data is to you. If you absolutely must have access to your files and there's no other easy way to get the data back, you may have to pay the ransom.
How do I avoid a ransomware attack?
There are several steps you can take to prevent an attack:
- Keep your operating system up to date and patched.
- Install good anti-virus/anti-malware software. This will stop many but not all attacks.
- Beware of email attachments from unknown sources. Do not open them!
- Whenever possible, don't use Internet Explorer or Edge. Firefox and Chrome are generally more secure browsers.
- Don't click the sponsored links on Facebook.
- Don't download pirated software, movies, or music.
And most importantly, ALWAYS BACK UP YOUR DATA. Imagine someone stealing a valuable photo album from your home and then demanding you pay to get it back. If you have an exact copy of that photo album hidden somewhere else in your home, you have no reason to pay the ransom!
Best practice is to back up your personal computer's data in one of two ways:
- External Hard Drive: Every day connect your computer to an external hard drive, perform a backup, and then disconnect your computer from the external hard drive.
- Online Backup Service: Sign up for an online backup service. The service will scan your computer at pre-determined time intervals, backup your files, encrypt them for security, and send them to the cloud.
Norton has tips and information about ransomware if you'd like to learn more.