What is Ransomware?

If you are a regular user of technology, at some point you have probably heard of the term "ransomware" but have no idea what it is or if you should be concerned about it. Simply put, ransomware is a type of malware that limits a user from accessing their computer or prevents them for accessing their personal data. Furthermore, this type of malware forces a user to pay a ransom through a specific online payment method in order to regain access to their computer or data.

There are generally different types of ransomware. However, all of them will prevent you from using your computer normally. For example, scareware is the simplest type of ransomware. It can come in the form of fake antivirus software or PC clean-up tool in which a message suddenly appears on your screen claiming your computer has various issues that will affect its performance and an online payment is required to fix them. If you try to ignore the message, it will bombard you with annoying pop-ups. There are even some types of scareware that will prevent you from running a particular application such a web browser. Typically, scareware can be the easiest type of ransomware to remove from your computer. 

Alternatively, encrypting or "crypto" ransomware is the worst variant, because it encrypts and locks a user’s personal files until the ransom is paid. This type of ransomware can encrypt everything on your computer from your documents to your photos to a point that you will never be able to open these files again without the correct password from the hackers. In order to get the password, the only option a user has is to pay the ransom. One recent example that gained a lot of news coverage is when Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles paid hackers a ransom of 40 bitcoins, worth about $16,664, in order to regain access to their computer systems.  What makes this scary is that even if the ransom is paid, there is no guarantee that the users will be given the password to fully access their files again. 

So how do protect yourself from ransomware. While it can infect computers in different ways, most ransomware takes a Trojan horse approach to infecting a computer. A ransomware infection can be triggered when the user opens an email attachment, visits a malicious website or installs infected software downloaded from the Internet. To protect yourself, be wary of unexpected email attachments and spam. Next, always run (and keep updated) a good anti-virus/anti-malware program to help prevent your computer from getting infected. Third, make sure that your operating system (Windows or Mac OS) is updated with the latest patches. Also, if you use browser-related components such as Adobe Flash, Java, and Microsoft Silverlight, make that they are updated as well. This is important because most malware attempts to exploit weaknesses in computer programs. Finally, back up your data regularly. Always have a good backup process in place, just in case your computer does become infected and you can’t recover your files. Not to mention that it’s best practice to protect yourself against data loss with regular backups. 

While ransomware can certainly be frightening, taking a diligent approach to prevention, such as educating yourself on how to detect suspicious websites and emails, can help avoid nasty and potentially expensive headaches caused by an infection.