Ransom is an ugly word. It conjures up images of violent kidnappings, dark basement rooms, and cut-and-pasted letters demanding financial compensation. Most Americans are fortunate enough not to come face-to-face with real-life kidnappers in their daily lives, but kidnapping is a sad fact of life in many parts of the world. Goodness knows how many terrified families have received ransom notes demanding something in return for their loved one’s release.
Even if you’ve never received a “real” ransom letter, you may be at risk of another kind of ransoming that, while not as viscerally frightening as kidnapping, is disruptive and scary in its own right. It’s called ransomware, and it’s one of the many types of malware that can threaten your electronic equipment and personal information.
What Is Ransomware?
According to computer security experts, ransomware is a highly varied type of malware that encrypts victims’ files or otherwise renders them inaccessible until the victim pays the perpetrator. Depending on the perpetrator’s country of origin, level of sophistication, and other factors, the ransom can range from a few dollars to more than $600 — a hefty sum indeed. Outside of rare circumstances, the money demanded in ransoms is limited by the intrinsic value of the infected computer system, as “kidnappers” who charge too much risk driving their victims to simply cut their losses and purchase a new device.
Ransomware infects computers like any other type of malware, through spam, phishing emails, website downloads, payloads from “parent” malware files (such as trojans), and other devious methods. Once active, ransomware programs typically use display messages to notify victims that they’ve been infected and communicate instructions for paying to unlock the system. Once perpetrators receive payment, they (usually) follow through on their end of the bargain.
But why pay to fix a problem you didn’t ask for? Follow these tips to protect yourself against ransomware.
Keep Your System Software Up to Date
Make sure your system’s most important software programs, including the operating system itself, are up to date. To stay on top of the latest patches and version releases, subscribe to each publisher’s email newsletter and activate system alerts. When a new patch or version becomes available, download it as soon as possible — for instance, overnight or during a break in your day. Since ransomware often exploits system vulnerabilities addressed by new patches, it’s absolutely critical to stay one step ahead of potential “kidnappers.”
Back Up Important Files Regularly
Make sure you backup your files on a regular basis, every week if possible. A complete file backup makes it easier to walk away from a compromised system than digging deep into your pockets to pay a hefty ransom that only serves to release files that belonged to you in the first place. (Talk about frustrating!)
Don’t Visit Sketchy Websites
This almost goes without saying, but it’s worth repeating: Don’t visit websites that you don’t trust. Even websites that may appear to be innocuous can be set up to deliver ransomware to your computer system. By the time you realize what’s happened, it could be too late. Always check a link’s destination before clicking.
Don’t Open or Interact with Suspicious Emails
Again, this is basic stuff, but it bears repeating. Email is a top delivery method for malware, including ransomware. When you encounter emails from questionable or unfamiliar sources, or receive messages from trusted people that don’t quite seem “right” (maybe the subject line is oddly urgent or the language stilted), follow the old maxim for dealing with spoiled food: When in doubt, throw it out; into your Deleted folder, that is.
Visit Trusted Websites Via Bookmarks
Sophisticated hackers frequently disguise malicious websites as trusted URLs, ensnaring unsuspecting web surfers who navigate directly to those sites (by typing the URLs directly into their browsers). In essence, typing in your preferred website’s URL whenever you visit them is like visiting an entirely new website each time. Bookmarking trusted sites and accessing them only through your browser’s bookmarks section is the best way to ensure that you visit the right site every time.
Keep Your Anti-Malware Software Up to Date
New threats are constantly emerging, and your anti-malware program is working hard to stay ahead of the curve. Whenever a new update becomes available, download it at your earliest convenience. If you find that your chosen program isn’t effectively identifying and neutralizing system threats, take a few hours to research alternatives.
Have you ever been victimized by ransomware?