When Your Computer Holds Your Files Hostage

Cyber extortion scams are on the rise, and spam e-mails loaded with ransomware are the preferred method scammers use to deliver these attacks. It works like this: Someone clicks on what looks like an innocent e-mail attachment. In a few seconds, all of their computer’s data will be encrypted and they’ll have just a few days to pay in Bitcoin to get it back.

In some cases, victims are subjected to a countdown clock on their computer screen, where files are deleted every hour at an escalating rate until the ransom is paid.

Pressure to pay
PC users, small businesses and corporate networks are all potential targets. What can you lose? Conversations. Photos. Your music collection. Personal documents. And other sensitive files. In most cases, the ransom demand is just a few hundred dollars, but if a cybercriminal knows he’s infiltrated a wealthy organization desperate for its data back, he’s likely to demand up to five-figures in fees to regain files access.

Today’s number one malware menace
Why is ransomware booming? Because it works. And it’s difficult to stop. Using ransomware, an attacker uses military-grade encryption to lock up the contents of a device so effectively that even the FBI has given up on decryption efforts in the past.

All hope is NOT lost
Fortunately, there are ways to thwart a ransomware attack. You can take precautions as you browse online, as well as take steps to fortify your system ahead of time to throw up a roadblock before file disintegration begins.

  • Check your browser address bar for any warnings about a non-reputable site’s identity.
  • Hover your mouse (do not click) over a link to see where the link goes and compare that to what the e-mail or web page says. If they don’t match, don’t click.
  • Install reputable anti-virus software to detect infections and protect against them.
  • Uncheck boxes during software installations if you’re offered additional software to download.
  • Keep your browser up-to-date and enable automatic Windows updates.
  • Always configure your browser’s Internet options for a high security level.
  • Back up all of your sensitive files offline onto an external hard drive—and do it regularly.
  • Ensure that the programs which are allowed to open attachments are up to date. (Make sure for example, you’re running the latest versions of Microsoft Word or Acrobat Reader.)

In addition to the above, there are some things you should never do on the Internet. These include:

  • Opening e-mail attachments from someone you don’t know.
  • Downloading something you’re not 100 percent sure about.If you must download something, send it to a download folder but do not click/execute/run the file until it’s checked out. To do this, right click on the file and select a scan by your antivirus software. Then–even if the antivirus says the file is okay—upload the file to a free malware scanner, such as Virus Total, VirScan, or Jotti to see what multiple antivirus services say about the file. If two or more say the file is infected, do not use/run/execute the file—just delete it.
  • Installing freeware from non-reputable sites. (It’s a good idea to check for detailed user reviews, first.)

Of course, no security measure is completely foolproof. For this reason, it’s imperative to back up your data regularly, as mentioned above. If you have up-to-date backups, the ransom becomes worthless. For advice on backing up your data, check out this in-depth guide from Lifehacker.com.

Resources: KrebsOnSecurity.com, Lifehacker.com, Sophos LTD