What is Ransomware? How to Prevent Attacks in 2019

What is Ransomware? How to Prevent Attacks in 2019
Evan Porter
Posted: March 31, 2019

There are dozens of different kinds of malware and viruses, each being dangerous in their own way.

Some of them force suspicious ads into your web browser, others steal your personal information, and others silently run in the background without you ever knowing.

In recent years, one of the most malicious and harmful forms of malware has been on the rise: Ransomware.

Ransomware is a specific type of malware that extorts a financial ransom from victims by threatening to publish, delete, or withhold access to important personal data.

The consequences of a ransomware attack can be catastrophic, and they’re difficult to deal with once your computer has been infected. Preventing an attack is the more effective strategy.

Here’s our guide to ransomware, how to prevent it, and what to do if your computer and data have been compromised.

What Are the Different Kinds of Ransomware?

Ransomware is a large umbrella term that covers a lot of different kinds of malware.

They all have one thing in common, however: threatening you or your data in an attempt to extort a ransom.

Here are the different kinds of ransomware to be aware of:

Crypto Ransomware

This special kind of ransomware crawls through your computer or network looking specifically for data it thinks might be important.

It gathers up documents like texts, spreadsheets, images, PDFs, and more to encrypt.

Usually, the rest of your data will be unaffected and you’ll still be able to use your computer. The encrypted data, however, will be inaccessible and the malware will try to force you to pay a ransom to unlock it.

Most forms of ransomware demand between 200 and 900 dollars from victims. If the ransom isn’t paid within 48-72 hours, the data is usually deleted forever.

Locker Ransomware

Locker ransomware doesn’t discriminate regarding what it locks. Once it’s on your computer, it locks the whole thing down!

If you can’t even log on to your computer or use it for basic tasks without seeing a threatening ransom message, you’ve probably been infected by locker ransomware.

Scareware

Like locker ransomware, scareware will often restrict all access to your computer and data. The difference is that scareware tries a different tactic to get you to pay the ransom.

You might see a window pop up allegedly “scanning” your computer for problems. It will find some, of course, and offer to “fix” them for you — for a hefty price.

You won’t be able to get rid of this message or continue using your computer until you’ve paid the ransom.

Doxware

A particular nasty form of ransomware, doxware isn’t just content to delete or restrict access to your data.

It threatens to publish sensitive information, like compromising photos or videos, personally identifying information, or financial data, publicly on the Internet if the ransom isn’t paid.

Doxware can be absolutely devastating for businesses and private individuals alike.

How Does Ransomware Get On Your Computer?

Usually, hackers target victims they think will be eager to pay the ransom and get their data back quickly.

In recent years, huge corporations including major hospitals and even Sony Pictures have been targets.

But almost anyone can find themselves the victim of a ransomware attack, and it usually happens one of two ways:

First, you downloaded the ransomware while it was disguised as an email attachment.

How Does Ransomware Get On Your Computer?

Pixabay

Have you ever received an email from someone you didn’t know, along with a cryptic attachment named something like “Invoice”?

In a lot of cases, these bizarre messages are ransomware or other malware attacks in disguise (known as Trojans).

The email may even be from someone you know, but that seemingly harmless attachment may be a virus waiting to infect your computer as soon as you download.

Second, the hackers exploited a loophole in your computer’s defenses.

Exploits take advantage of vulnerabilities or mistakes in the code of a computer program or operating system.

Hackers may discover, for example, a vulnerability in the latest build of Windows that allows them to sneak in the backdoor of your PC and install malware on your machine.

Known exploits are issues in software that have been discovered and, usually, patched with a security update. Unknown exploits haven’t been made public yet and lead to “zero-day attacks,” or the first malware attacks of their kind.

4 Simple Ways to Prevent Ransomware Attacks in 2019

Ransomware attacks sound incredibly scary, and they can be extremely detrimental when they happen. But preventing them is usually simple if you plan ahead.

Here are our top tips for keeping yourself safe from ransomware:

Install a Top-Rated Antivirus with Ransomware Protection

Running the occasional virus scan is a good idea, but having a rock-solid first line of defense on your computer is even better.

The best antivirus programs these days will feature some kind of ransomware protection, including proactive defense against zero-day attacks and sometimes a specially encrypted folder where you can keep your most important data safe from hackers.

Keep Your Antivirus, And All Other Critical Software And Systems, Up To Date At All Times

Some antivirus programs have automatic updates, while others don’t.

Regardless, you’ll want to be diligent about making sure you’ve installed all the latest versions, virus definitions, and patches that your provider sends along to stay prepared.

You should also regularly update your operating system and other key pieces of software. Usually, new versions or patches carry critical security updates that you don’t want to ignore.

Back Up Your Most Important Data On A Separate Network Or Device (Cold Backups)

If ransomware does get through your defenses and infect your computer, you can severely cripple its impact by backing up your data separately.

Cloud backups are great and can be convenient, but ideally you’ll make “cold backups” of your most important files.

That means storing them on a USB or hard drive that you keep completely separate and disconnected from your computer and network.

This way, if you lose those files in a ransomware attack, you can easily restore them.

Be Smart Online And Prevent Ransomware In The First Place

Ransomware finding a backdoor into your PC is one thing. Opening up the front door and welcoming it inside is another!

Always practice safe online behavior to avoid viruses and other malware. That means:

  • Avoid suspicious and untrustworthy websites
  • Only download software, apps, and media from official marketplaces
  • Never download email attachments unless you know what they are and who they’re from

What To Do If Your Computer Gets Infected By Ransomware

Unlike its malware cousins, adware and computer worms, ransomware is notoriously difficult to deal with once it’s taken a hold of your files.

If you do get infected, there’s more than a slim chance you won’t get your data back without paying the ransom.

Most experts, however, advise against paying the ransom. Here’s why:

  • First, paying the ransom encourages the criminals to continue their scam
  • Second, there’s no guarantee paying the ransom will get you your files back

However, if your data is extraordinarily important or sensitive, it’s completely up to you. There are plenty of documented cases of victims paying the ransom and receiving their data back in one piece.

That said, there are a few other techniques you can try before you give in to the attackers or give up on your data.

Disconnect From The Network To Protect Other Computers

The last thing you need is the ransomware spreading to another computer on your network or getting a hold of files you’ve stored on a separate network-connected device.

Disable your network connection as soon as you see the ransomware alert.

Remove the Ransomware

Scouring your computer and encrypting your files takes time, so you’ll want to remove the ransomware as soon as possible to minimize the damage.

If you have a powerful antivirus on your computer, this should be easy. If not, you can always try one of the best free options for a quick fix.

Removing the malware, however, won’t release your files.

Look for a Decryption Key Online

Luckily, there’s a huge community of whitehat hackers and cyber security experts working diligently to crack the latest ransomware strains.

Use a tool like Crypto Sheriff to determine what strain has infected your computer, and scour resources like No More Ransom to see if a decryption key has been created yet.

If you’ve been attacked by a common ransomware strain, there’s a decent chance someone will have cracked it and you may be able to recover your files.

Call A Professional (And Maybe Law Enforcement)

If you’re still not able to recover your files or system access and you desperately need them back, you might want to call in a professional.

Try your local computer repair shops or the Geek Squad — often they have antivirus or ransomware services, and they may be able to help.

You should also report the ransomware attack to local police or the FBI, who tracks cyber-attacks through its Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Create A Formidable Defense

The two best things you can do to protect yourself from a ransomware attack are:

  • Practice safe email, download, and Internet browsing behavior
  • Install a high-end antivirus

Ransomware attacks can be devastating, and unfortunately, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get your files or computer access back once the malware takes hold of them.

That’s why preparing ahead of time is the best decision you can make.

About the Author

Evan Porter
Evan Porter

Evan is a writer with over a decade of digital publishing experience. He also builds blogs, loves gadgets, and fixes tech problems around the house.