As you scroll through your social media feed, a window pops up: “Your hard drive has been encrypted. You have 48 hours to pay $200 or your data will be destroyed.” You see a link and instructions to “pay in Bitcoin.” An ominous looking timer counts down the seconds and minutes for the two-day window. Nine, eight, seven….
Your thoughts immediately go to the contents of your hard drive — your daughter’s graduation video, your bank statements, a life insurance policy, pictures of your grandchildren — they all sit there, vulnerable, helpless bits of ones and zeros…and you don’t know what the heck bitcoin is.
Welcome to the world of ransomware — digital data hostage-taking only Hollywood could make up. Ransomware is a security threat for people and business, and cybersecurity experts predict it will only get worse in the future. One cause for its popularity is the profitability of the enterprise. Cyberthieves rake in millions every year with threats to destroy or encrypt valuable data if their ransoms aren’t paid.
You don’t need to be a millionaire or multinational corporation to be at risk. Cyberthieves also target the data of average consumers. When they target consumers, hackers may only request a few hundred dollars ransom but when the threat includes a thousand people, it makes for quite the lucrative venture. Many ransomware victims feel the risk of losing their data is too great, so they pay up. However, this only encourages the criminals.
The best way to combat ransomware is by not becoming a victim in the first place. To that end, here are five immediate steps you can take to avoid ransomware attacks.
Step 1: Set Your Operating System to Automatically Update
The first step to avoiding ransomware is to update your operating system (OS). Anything connected to the web works better when it’s OS is updated. Tech companies like Microsoft and Apple regularly research and release fixes for “bugs” and security patches for vulnerabilities in their systems. It’s a cybersecurity game of cat and mouse. Cyberthieves search for “holes,” and companies race to find them first and “patch” them.
Users are key players in the game because they are the ultimate gatekeepers of their operating systems. If your OS isn’t up to date, you can’t take advantage of the security updates. Plus, your computer runs better with an updated OS.
Set your OS to update automatically and you won’t need to remember to do it manually. While Windows 10 automatically updates (you have no choice), older versions don’t. But setting auto updates are easy, whether you’re on a Mac or PC.
Step 2: Screenshot Your Bank Emails
Cybercriminals use trojans or worms to infect your computer with ransomware. So avoiding these will help you avoid ransomware. Worms and trojan malware are often spread through phishing email scams, which trick users into opening email attachments containing viruses or clicking links to fake websites posed as legitimate ones.
One of the best tips for keeping phishing emails at bay is learning to identify them. Hackers send phishing emails that look like they come from banks, credit card companies, or the IRS. Phishing emails kickstart your fears and anxieties by suggesting there are “problems with your account” or insisting that “Urgent action is required.” Who wouldn’t be scared if their bank sent them an email saying, “You are overdrawn in your account.”
Cybercriminals use this fear to distract people so they will overlook the telltale signs of the phishing email like misspellings or common fear-inducing subject lines.
Take screenshots of all of the legitimate emails from your bank, credit card companies, and others business that manage your sensitive information. Use these screenshots to compare with future emails you receive so you can spot phishing phonies and avoid ransomware.
Step 3: Bookmark Your Most Visited Websites
The next step in your ransomware avoidance journey is to bookmark all of your most visited websites. Just as with phishing emails, cybercriminals build websites that look like bank or credit card sites. Then they trick users into clicking a link and visiting them. From there, hackers steal your sign-in credentials or infect your computer with malware.
Think twice before you visit a website by clicking a link in an email, comments section, or private messaging app. Instead, bookmark your most visited or high-value websites and visit them through your browser.
Step 4: Backup Your Data to the Cloud and a Hard Drive
This step is a no-brainer. Ransomware works if you only have one copy of your data. If it’s irretrievable, then cyberthieves have the upperhand, but if you have multiple copies, you have taken away the power behind the threat.
Back up your data to both a cloud service and a hard drive. That way, you have a copy that’s available anywhere there’s internet access and one that’s physically accessible all the time. Both types of storage are relatively inexpensive and will certainly prove worth it if you’re ever a ransomware target.
After backing up your data, set up a schedule so you can keep your data current. If you haven’t backed up your data in six months, you’re probably just as vulnerable to ransomware attacks as having no backup at all.
Step 5: Install Cybersecurity Software
Congratulations! You made it to the last step. Ransomware is constantly evolving as hackers develop new, more dangerous strains. For users, preemptive steps rock, but unless you download and install a comprehensive cybersecurity software, your data is still vulnerable to malware infection.
Here’s a phrase worth remembering: ransomware is a nightmare. After cyberthieves encrypt your data, the chances of recovering it are slim to none…and slim just left town. The story of ransomware doesn’t have the Hollywood, happily-ever-after ending. It will definitely leave you teary-eyed…just for the wrong reasons.