Everyday, millions of people like you and I, navigate online to check emails, pay bills, go shopping, order food, do banking, plan a vacation, or even run an online business.
Everyday criminals also navigate online looking to check your email, steal the banking information you used to pay your bills, go shopping, or order food, and finally maybe do a little banking for you. These “cyber” criminals are incessantly looking for ways to take advantage of unsuspecting internet users, cooking up new scams and schemes, and even recycling old ones.
Intensifying over the last few years is a vile and ruthless form of malware called Ransomware, or Cryptoware. Cybercriminals engaged in this type of cybercrime are merciless, shelling out automated attacks targeting anyone and everyone.
Criminal vs. Cyber Criminal?
Okay, so why the comparison? They’re both criminals right?
If most of us came upon a suspicious, creepy looking character scoping out our home, vehicle, or hanging out next to the ATM, we would immediately move to safe ground, and maybe even call the police. We use our senses, experience, and instincts to avoid danger and protect what is valuable to us.
In our day to day “off-line” lives, we all take certain precautions to protect our homes, vehicles, and money, Right? I don’t leave the door to my house wide open, vehicle unlocked, or my wallet unsecured, and I highly doubt you do either.
However, the “online” world can lull our senses and instincts into a deep sleep. We can develop a false sense of security. After all, we don’t physically see any suspicious, creepy looking characters hanging out next to www.mybanking.com, myEmail@email.com, IShopHere.com, or “my awesome social media network”.
Cybercriminals take advantage of online anonymity and reach, meaning they can anonymously launch attacks from anywhere in the world.
Okay, simply put, this stuff is nasty. Basically, once your computer is infected with this type of malware (malicious software), your files are encrypted and inaccessible until a specific ransom is paid.
Your computer is essentially held hostage until you pay enough money to get it back. Assuming you pay the ransom and aren’t continually extorted for even more money, decryption keys are sent to you, which then allow you to decrypt your files and hopefully once again gain access to your computer and precious data.
Think about the most important, irreplaceable files on your computer, family photo’s/videos, tax returns, music library, and personal/business documents. Now think of someone else locking away all of those valuable files, and demanding you pay money for the key!
With numerous variants of Ransomware in the “wild”, and new ones emerging regularly, we will focus on two things:
- Regardless of the type of Ransomware, they’re all dreadful & to be avoided like the plague
- What are some simple steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim
Avoiding a Hostage Situation
Ransomware can be installed on your computer in a number of ways including:
- Spam email containing malicious links or attachments
- Drive-by Downloads (Malicious code embedded in a compromised website automatically installs on your computer when you visit the site, without you even knowing until it’s too late!)
- Security vulnerabilities in software
So, how do you know if you’ve been infected?
Depending on the type of Ransomware, a warning like the one above will pop up with instructions on how to pay for the decryption key.
You may be wondering, “Okay, what if I just run my antivirus software, or restore my computer to a previous restore point before the Ransomware infection? Problem solved, right?
Unfortunately, No. Utilizing some of the strongest encryption algorithms available, once the ransomware has executed, your files and maybe even the operating system itself will be inaccessible. The malicious code can even work to disable the service which controls your computers backup & restore features, while deleting/clearing existing restore points. So, no restore to safer days, and your antivirus won’t be able to undo the encryption.
As for your antivirus detecting the Ransomware to start with, cybercriminals behind these heinous acts go to great lengths to remain covert and evade detection.
So, is your antivirus useless against this type of malware?
Well that depends….
Be Careful What You Click!
I can’t emphasize this enough, Be careful what you click.
Even the best of the best antivirus software can’t compensate for the “indiscriminate clicker”.
Avoid opening suspicious looking emails or emails from an unknown sender. Even if the email appears to be sent from someone you know, it can still contain malware. Once a cybercriminal has compromised an email account, they will send out malicious emails to everyone in that accounts address book. What appears to be a harmless email from your mother with a link to the “Top 10 Gifts For Mom on Mothers Day”, is really a link that will download and install a malicious payload.
No email is a 911. If you’re uncertain about your mother’s attempts to score the perfect mother’s day gift, delete the email and give her a call. Also, avoid downloading email attachments, unless you are absolutely sure they are safe. Again, no 911, and files can always be resent.
Steer clear of suspicious websites as well. If you want to investigate a website, type the URL(ex. https://www.navigatingthenet.com) into your web browser versus clicking a link in an email, or on another website. For example, click here to navigate to www.google.com.
Did you arrive at google.com?
Another tip you can use to evaluate links is, without clicking on the link, just hover your cursor over the link to discover its true destination. Now you can see the real destination of the link above without clicking on it.
Update, Update, Update!
Back to your antivirus. Is it useless? Absolutely, IF you don’t update it. Updating your antivirus ensures you stay protected against new threats. In addition to updating your antivirus, you will want to make sure your operating system and any other software is current with the latest security updates.
Also, delete outdated browser (Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox) plugins/add-ons, and keep the ones you use updated to the latest version. Only download plugins/add-ons from trusted sources, thoroughly scrutinize any freeware(free software) before downloading, and when in doubt, choose reputable software vendors even it means having to pay.
Once, Twice, Three Times a Back Up
Ultimately, Ransomware exploits the importance of your data as it relates to your willingness to pay top dollar to save it, and in most cases your unwillingness to back it up. If your computer is infected, but you have no crucial files to be held hostage, then whether you pay a ransom or not is really of no consequence.
Yes, to get rid of the Ransomware you may have to go through the pain of wiping your hard drive and reinstalling your operating system & programs, but you haven’t lost any important data.
So, what do you do if you have valuable files you’d rather not live without?
The solution, backup you data.
Performing regular backups of your “can’t live without” files ensures that whether by Ransomware, or any other failure, your data is safe and accessible when you need it. It is recommended that your important files should exist in two or more physical locations at once.
For example, my important files exist on my computer, on an external hard drive, and in cloud accounts like Drop Box. Be aware that Ransomware can infect connected external hard drives and network devices, so disconnect accordingly after a backup.
It should be noted that some versions of Ransomware have the capability to also lock your cloud-based backups if they are set for continuous backup in real-time. Protect your cloud-based backups by disabling any autostart features to ensure applications like Dropbox, Google Drive, & OneDrive etc., are not turned on by default. Open the application to sync your data, and make sure to close it once you’re done.
- Be careful what you click
- Keep your system and software up-to-date
- Backup, Backup, Backup
And now that you know what ransomware is along with a few simple steps you can take to avoid it, stay vigilant, navigate with awareness, keep learning, and share the knowledge with someone you know.
And please, Back it Up 🙂
Have you been affected by Ransomware? Have a specific scam or scheme you would like to learn more about?
Share your experience or questions in the comments below!
Wishing you safe travels through cyberspace,