What is Ransomware and How to Protect Yourself from it

“Why is the computer talking?” My uncle’s wife asked him. Confused, he looked up at her, asked what she was talking about and then saw a red alert on the computer screen that read, “Your files and documents have been encrypted,” while the computer recited the words at the same time.

My uncle and his wife are among the hundreds of thousands of victims of Ransomware. Ransomware is a form of malware that encrypts, or locks, your files or entire hard drive and makes them completely inaccessible. It demands a certain amount of money in order to get a key to unlock the files, and the money you have to pay is in form of Bitcoins. I know, you’re asking, “what the heck are Bitcoins?” Bitcoins are a kind of virtual currency. They are completely untraceable, uninsured and are unmanaged by a bank or The Federal Reserve. Today, one Bitcoin is worth $572. So, when a hacker asks you for 3 Bitcoins to obtain the key to access your files, they’re really asking for $1,716. This is grounds to make anybody feel completely powerless and violated. (*Note that Bitcoins aren’t a virtual currency made up by hackers, but exploited by them. Bitcoins are safe to use when used the right way.)

Phishing

Not only is ransomware a huge inconvenience because it causes you to lose your personal files, but it can be a threat to your important financial information. You can imagine this isn’t just concerning for consumers, but it’s a huge problem for companies and corporations, big and small. There have been instances where entire hospitals have been shut down because of ransomware. Patients’ data was completely compromised, frozen and inaccessible.

“It really has taken on a life of its own,” says Sheila Fortin, Assistant Vice President of Corporate Security at Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union. “The general intention is to cause disruption,” she adds.

Ransomware Threat

Hackers spread ransomware through clickable links in emails and pop-up advertisements and the hack can make itself known in different ways.

  • One is similar to my uncle’s experience. The screen will come up, demand the money be paid by a certain date and you’ll have absolutely no way to access any file or document on your computer, whether they be from your last amazing vacation or the holidays, school papers, reports, your credit card or tax information you have saved on your computer, schedules, anything!
  • Another kind of ransomware is when a screen will pop up, freeze your computer and claim there has been illegal activity found by the FBI on your device. Files on the computer will be inaccessible to you until you pay the “fine.” This screen looks legitimate and even contains the FBI logo which can make you panic and think you have to immediately pay the fine to fix it. The fine is another word for ransom and “the FBI” is really a hacker.
  • Scareware will claim that your virus protection program has detected an unbelievable amount of viruses or malware and you must pay the fee to have them removed.
  • Probably one of the scarier ones is called, extortionware. This kind of ransomware will inform you that the hacker has very personal information, such as your name, address, credit card information, social security number, etc. and threatens to use it against you unless you pay the ransom.

Malware

As you can see, ransomware is extremely invasive to your privacy, but it also puts your identity and financial information in the hands of the wrong people.

“If a consumer is a victim of ransomware, they should consider their personal information compromised and themselves at the risk of identity theft,” says Fortin. “They should speak to their financial institution about the next steps, whether it be to close their accounts and open new ones, or put on a credit freeze,” she adds.

Read here for 5 quick tips to protect yourself from identity theft.

Fortin also recommends keeping an eye on your credit report to make sure there are no false accounts opened. Visit www.annualcreditreport.com for free credit reports. A consumer is entitled to one free credit report annually, from each of the three credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.  Fortin advises to check your report once every four months using a different bureau each time.

It is expected that these malicious and vicious attacks will only grow stronger and more sophisticated, so it’s very important that you know how to protect yourself against ransomware.

“The first and most important step is to back up your files on an external device,” says Fortin. This means your back-up device should not be connected to your computer. You can do this with either an external hard drive or by backing up your files on the cloud. Check with your internet provider or your mobile device carrier to learn what they offer for their cloud service and how to set it up. When you do perform a “back up,” be sure to also confirm that your files are recoverable by testing the back up.

Install Anti-Virus

Also, make sure you have the highest and most recent security installed on your computer. This includes anti-virus and anti-malware. In addition, always keep your computer and mobile device software up to date.

“You’re never going to completely eliminate the risk, but you want to minimize it,” says Fortin.

FYI – If you have Comcast, you get Norton Anti-Virus for free!

Be sure that a pop-up blocker is turned on at all times when you’re surfing the internet. If something pops up while you’re on the internet that looks intriguing, instead of clicking on the link within the pop up, visit the website directly to avoid clicking on a ransomware-infested ad.

If you receive an email with a link or attachment that looks totally out of the ordinary or it’s from a person you don’t know, don’t click right away. Make sure it’s legitimate. Many times, a malicious email subject line will say “Statement” or “Invoice,” anything to get you to click on it and open the link.

If you find yourself the victim of a ransomware attack, don’t panic! You may think that you have to immediately pay the ransom in order to get your stuff back, but that could be worse. Just because you pay, does not mean the hacker will actually give you the key to unlock your files, and if you do pay, you’re just motivating the hacker to keep going and you could be funding other malicious attacks.

Since ransomware can also affect other computers on the same network as the infected computer, it’s important to turn off the device and disconnect it from the network.

Locked Padlock On Laptop Shows Access Or Protection

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this malware is becoming so sophisticated and tricky and getting your files back is almost impossible without the key, which you can only get by paying the ransom. This is why backing up your data is so important! You could easily get a new computer and have access to everything again, but when you’re left without a backup and a computer infected with ransomware, it’s unlikely you will ever see the files again unless you know someone with serious decryption skills.

Technology is so easy to rely on for making life easier, but that doesn’t make it safe. Be sure you are always protected, be smart when surfing the internet, create unique passwords, stay up-to-date with anti-virus and malware software and use caution when opening emails from unfamiliar sources.

For more information on ransomware, other cybercrime and how to protect yourself, visit https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/cyber for some great tips and tools!  (That link is safe to click, I promise).

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