What is ransomware?

“Ransomware” has quickly become one of the most pervasive cyber risks affecting single user systems to multi-user networks.  While there are several versions of the threat, there are many common themes.  

Unlike other types of viruses that may go undetected by the user, ransomware is readily apparent. Once affected, a computer becomes inoperable or data inaccessible. The virus may either disable the computer or encrypt the hard drive, specific data or the drive and backup systems.  

A warning appears on the screen that states that in exchange for a payment, usually in digital currency such as Bitcoin, the computer or data will be released. The ransom demanded ranges from $150 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending upon the type of virus, the target affected and likelihood of payment.  

Often, the message accuses the user of downloading illegal or embarrassing content that frightens users to comply with the hackers’ demands without notifying law enforcement. For instance, a common ransomware message appears to come from the FBI and claims that the user is under investigation for downloading child pornography or copyrighted content, such as movies or video games. 

Practice good physical cyber hygiene

  • Make sure that virus protection, firewalls, operating system and software updates are current. Stop clicking, “remind me later,” and take time to install updates. 
  • Back up important data, and the more redundant your back ups—within reason—the better. For a single computer, backing up to a cloud service and a detachable external hard drive or large capacity flash drive is a simple solution. Maintain at least one good copy of your back up data before overwriting it with a newer version. Of course, the more recent a back up is, the less extensive a data loss can be. 
  • For larger networks, the same principles apply—use more than one back up method, ensure that at least one of them is stored offline and make sure there’s always at least one good copy of your data. This will minimize the possibility of ransomware contaminating back ups in addition to the core system.

Be vigilant about cyber

The most up-to-date security cannot protect us if we engage in unsafe online behavior.  Practice cyber vigilance by: 

  • Remaining security conscious when reading and responding to email. Don’t click on links before you copy them and google them. Most of the time, if the link is known to spread malware, you will receive a wealth of responses documenting the dangers of clicking on the link.  
  • Not downloading documents—especially word documents or pdfs—that may be suspect. If you’re not expecting a document, don’t download it without investigating it first. For example, if you receive an email that says your item has shipped, but you didn’t order anything recently, don’t click on the link or download the attachment. If you receive an attachment from someone and the email doesn’t contain other text, that is suspicious. If you receive a document, pdf or file from someone you don’t normally receive material from, investigate before downloading or opening the file.  
  • Taking a look at the source of the email—even if the email is from someone you normally converse with, take a look at the extension to the email and the address itself. Many times, hackers change one letter or substitute a number for a letter in an email address in an effort to exploit our tendency to trust the source and gloss over details. 

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