I first encountered “Ransomware” a couple of years ago in a SaddleBrooke computer. It’s not new, but it is becoming much more widespread. I’ve been reading about it, and just today, as I was sitting down to write this month’s article, I got word of another occurrence right here in SaddleBrooke.
What is Ransomware?
The name says it all. When you encounter “ransomware” in your computer, you know it immediately. Your computer will suddenly lock, and you get an official-looking warning about a problem with your computer. You cannot proceed without submitting your credit card number to purchase a fix. In other words, you must pay a ransom to get your computer back.
This is a plain and simple attempt to extort money from you. It’s pretty obviously a scam, but it’s such a scary message that many people get taken in. The message may appear to come from an antivirus program, or Windows, or even the FBI. In the case of the FBI variety, you are accused of visiting child pornography sites or engaging in other illegal online activity. Your computer will remain locked until you pay a fine. If you cave to the pressure, you have just given your credit card to a cyber criminal, and furthermore, it doesn’t fix problem.
How Do You Get Infected with Ransomware?
Historically, viruses are encountered when you download and open an infected file or attachment. But increasingly, a stealthier variety of “drive-by” virus can install itself when you simply click on an infected website. If you take this seemingly innocent action on the wrong Website, your computer immediately locks and displays the bogus warning. Your computer is now useless until you legitimately fix the problem, not by paying the ransom, but by consulting an expert.
How Can You Avoid Ransomware?
First and foremost, make sure your antivirus software is installed and up to date. Legitimate Websites can be hacked and viruses and malware installed on them. So, there may be no obvious sign that a malicious program is lurking on an otherwise innocent Website. All you can do is make sure you are running a reliable antivirus program with an up-to-date subscription, in the hopes that this will detect and defray a drive-by attack before it infects your computer.
What to Do If You Encounter Ransomware?
If ransomware strikes you, take the following steps:
- Whatever you do, do not interact with the ransomware site. Do not pay any money or otherwise provide personal information.
- Contact an expert.* Do not try to fix the problem yourself. It’s unlikely that you will be able to unlock your computer without help. If you are somehow able to do that, it is likely that the virus still lurks in your computer, running in the background and harvesting sensitive personal information … everything from credit card numbers to usernames and passwords.
*FYI, I’m not equipped to deal with these kinds of issues. You may be able to get help from your antivirus software provider or a local professional. It will cost you a little money, but you’ll get your computer back.
It’s Computer Flu Season
In closing, I just want to follow up on the last two points. I liken the whole computer virus issue (ransomware and others) to the situation with the current flu epidemic.
TO PREVENT THE FLU, GET A FLU SHOT: That’s what your antivirus software is … an inoculation against infection. And just like a flu shot, it’s not necessarily 100% effective. But it’s a whole lot better than having no antivirus protection at all (not getting a flu shot) or not keeping your software up to date (relying on last year’s flu shot to stop this year’s strain). It’s up to you to take responsibility for your computer’s health.
IF YOU CATCH THE FLU, SEE A DOCTOR: That’s the equivalent of calling in a computer professional if your computer does “get sick.” It’s a constant battle between the bad guys (who are always looking for new ways to sneak past any safeguards) and the good guys (the security software people closing vulnerabilities). If you are so unfortunate as to encounter a very recent virus “strain” that your antivirus software has not seen before, you may not be protected. That’s when you “call the doctor.”