Ransomware – what is it and why should we worry

Just when you finished securing all of your private information to make it safe from identity thieves, along comes ransomware. This increasingly popular and disruptive form of cybercrime – which makes files and data stored on computers inaccessible unless a ransom is paid – was once an obscure niche for hackers. In addition to individual PC users, ransomware attacks are now affecting larger systems including government agencies and some of the world’s biggest corporations. With sophisticated ransomware software available online for hackers to use and the rise of anonymous digital currencies such as bitcoin, chances are good that the attacks will continue to evolve and multiply.

Ransomware works by encrypting data and holding a device hostage until a fee is paid to restore it to normal. In the case of the now famous WannaCry worm, which was unleashed in May, the ransom was $300 in bitcoin, payable within 72 hours. In June, a South Korean web hosting company agreed to pay more than $1 million to unlock its servers, the largest known payout. The virus spreads from machine to machine on a network, often via email attachments from rogue senders. The targets are usually older computer operating systems that have not been properly maintained with up-to-date security software.

Ransomware attacks on individuals are especially effective because most ransom demands are relatively inexpensive and victims usually decide that it’s cheaper to pay than to hire expensive help to restore their data. Being hacked is not only inconvenient, it’s embarrassing too. Paying a modest ransom in exchange for getting your data back offers an easy way to ‘make it go away’. The identity of the hackers is hard to learn because they can act anonymously online and the ransom is paid with digital currencies.

So how can you avoid being victimized by ransomware?

A good way is to be diligent about keeping your computer up to date. Older operating systems, browsers, and software may be more vulnerable to attack. Make sure you use the latest version of your computer’s operating system, Internet browser, and software. Configure your computer’s operating system and browser to receive updates automatically.

Your computer’s operating system should also have a firewall—software that is designed to prevent unauthorized access to your computer by blocking suspicious people or websites. Make sure you have a firewall, and that it is turned on and up-to-date. For a tutorial on how to turn on common operating system firewalls, go to the federal government’s Onguard Online site. The most effective form of prevention — for businesses or individuals — is to back up files. If data is backed up regularly to an external source, a computer can be reset to its factory settings and then the backed-up files can be reinstalled, essentially wiping the ransomware from the system.

As computing and internet connectedness finds its way into literally everything we do, new ransomware threats will emerge. Educate yourself, be suspicious and protect your digital life.

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