In the world of online security, trends come and go, and cybercriminals will ride out a trend for as long there’s opportunity to make money. Within the last several months, cybercriminals have been riding a particular type of malware, coined ransomware, which has resulted in an uptick in the number of fear-inducing media stories about online security.
In a similar fashion to how society gives nicknames to celebrity relationships (ex. “Brangelina”), the creative geniuses in the technology industry took the last part of “malware” and added it to the end of “ransom,” thus generating a media-friendly buzzword that could quickly incite fear into hearts and minds.
But, the truth is, ransomware doesn’t have to give you the quivers. Knowing a little bit more about this latest malware trend can help keep your computer and your bank account safe.
1. What is ransomware?
Ransomware is like it sounds. It’s a type of malware that holds your computer (or its files) at ransom. Typically, this form of malware manifests itself with a pop-up message, the content of which can vary according to the specific strain of ransomware that’s infected your PC.
So, if you receive an invasive pop-up message that the “FBI has detected illegal activity on your computer” and needs to collect a fine before you can regain access to your files, you know you’ve been hit with ransomware. Just FYI, if the FBI has found illegal activity on your computer, they’re not going to notify you with a pop-up alert.
2. If my computer is infected, should I pay the ransom?
Let me say—quite emphatically—that you should not pay the ransom. Why? Well, a couple of reasons.
By paying, there’s no guarantee that your computer will be released back over to you. Similar to how the U.S. government generally will not negotiate with terrorists—think Harrison Ford in the opening scenes of Air Force One—I don’t recommend trying to work out an amicable settlement with a cybercriminal. By paying, you could actually become suspect to even more malware, not to mention, you’d be giving the cybercriminals your payment information.
Most of the time, an IT professional can restore access to your computer by safely removing the ransomware. But, you don’t have to use an IT professional. If you’re comfortable using virus removal tools, there are several out there that can get the job done. A couple of free options come courtesy of stevengould.org and Malwarebytes.
Regardless of whether you use an IT professional or opt for a DIY clean-up, your computer will likely be restored to its last back-up date. So, if you haven’t backed-up your computer in a while, you may not be able to fully recover all your files. This is one reason why it’s important to frequently back-up your computer. Not to mention, when you do back-up your system, I recommend that you back-up to an external device—USB drive, external hard drive, or cloud storage.
3. How do I keep my computer protected from ransomware?
Since ransomware is similar to other types of malware, you can safeguard your computer by installing and maintaining up-to-date anti-virus software, such as Symantec, Sophos or Kaspersky. You’ll have to pay for these, but protecting your computer is definitely worth the expense. If you have a Windows computer, Microsoft offers a free anti-virus solution, Windows Defender, which is comparable to many of the paid options on the market.
When it comes to anti-virus software, though, more is not necessarily better. If you’ve ever heard the saying, “Sometimes you can have too many chefs in the kitchen,” the same can be said for anti-virus software. So, just pick one, and go with it.
Lastly, make sure to periodically update your system software. These are updates that are pushed out by the operating system provider (Windows, Mac, etc.). You’ll also want to make sure you’re running the latest versions of Adobe Reader, Flash Player, and other programs you might use while accessing the Internet.
These security measures, coupled with exercising good judgment, such as avoiding suspicious websites and strange links, can help prevent your computer from being taken hostage.
About the Author:
Rusty Haferkamp is the chief information officer for Central National Bank. In his spare time, he enjoys being outdoors, hunting, fishing, and spending time with his wife and two young daughters.