Beware Ransomware

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Beware Ransomware

Tori O’Brien

Ransomware is on the rise and can be a big damper on your or your family pictures and your students work (definitely not something we want happening around finals time). It’s hard to believe, but hackers encrypt these files for money! Here are some suggestions how to avoid it and what to do if you end up infected.

What is it?

Ransomware is a virus true to its name in that it holds your computer or files “hostage” until a “ransom” is paid.  This virus scares you into or requires you to make a payment via an electronic web source before giving you a code to be able to re-access your computer or before decrypting your files (enabling you to read/use them again). There are cybercriminals behind these viruses, and they don’t all have a great track record with truth.

How does it happen?

Cybercriminals dupe you into clicking on infected pop-up ads or web/email links. Viruses can also come from visiting an infected website. Hackers are getting even better at targeting and personalizing what links you and your students will click on to capture this virus. So, you can be extremely vulnerable to this type of cyber-attack if you do not have certain protective measures in place. If a cybercriminal gets hold of your computer network, the infection can escalate to things such as identity theft or a data breach.

These types of viruses can manifest as pornographic pop-up ads or fake links when you use the web. Additionally, it can begin to destroy your files based on a time clock (like every 30 minutes that you don’t pay the ransom, a file will be deleted or encrypted).

What do you do?

The best plan is a preventative plan. You don’t want to have to figure out a recovery plan if you don’t have to. If you put a plan in place so that you don’t get the virus –  then you are ahead of the game!

The best answer is: BACKUP YOUR COMPUTER UP REGULARLY! Yup, the WHOLE THING! Most of us mean to do this and never do but back-ups can be scheduled and run at convenient times (while you are asleep). The good news is, it’s relatively cheap to back up your computer (and cheaper than buying a whole new computer or losing those priceless pictures or documents), and it’s easy. Norton has a great article talking about it HERE.

How do I back-up my computer?

So glad you asked! Here are two ways to do it. It’s really best to do both, just in case technology fails one way or the other.

Option 1: External Hard Drive

Go to your local office supply store, warehouse, or computer/tech store (like Best Buy or Office Depot) and buy an external hard drive (you can also Amazon Prime it). This will set you back about $50-60 bucks. Plug it into your computer (via the USB port) and then when the drive shows up on your desktop, drag your hard drive over to it. It should automatically begin copying all your files over to the hard drive. A message should pop up, notifying you that this is happening. Make sure the computer is plugged into a power source during this process because it might take awhile to get all the programs and files copied to the external hard drive. You can even plan to do this right before you go to bed; it should be done when you wake up. Then, make sure you disconnect the device correctly and store that baby in a safe place. Repeat this procedure every week, month, or at the VERY LEAST every 6 months. Schedule the back-ups or set an alarm on your calendar to remind you to do it. You can replace the files every time you do it if you want. This way you will always have the latest updated version of your files safe and sound. (If you really want, you can restore your computer to the default every 6 months for a fresh start. With your files safe and copied, you just drag them back over to the computer whenever you desire).

Option 2: Use a cloud service

You will need to have a cloud service account. This might be automatic if you have a MAC (icloud), but if you have a PC (or MAC) you can become a member of a service like Dropbox, BackBlaze, or icloud where they store your computer information on their cloud or server, freeing up space on your computer.  Automatic updates can be scheduled with this option and it can upload your files every day, week, or month. Check in to be sure that the set-up is working correctly every once in awhile to be sure your information is secure.

HERE is a nice graphic/article that shows online back-up options and allows you to compare them side-by-side. The drawbacks with backing up online are minimal: sometimes clouds can crash (this is highly unusual), the initial back-up can take a long time, and these services sometimes only backup your personal data, not the systems or programs you have on your computer. But something is better than nothing AND updating can be made automatic and easy.

Last Pointers and the Take-Away

Other actions you can take to prevent infection are use reputable antivirus software and make sure you have a firewall set-up that enables your pop-up blocker to detect infected ads, links, and attachments. Exercise caution when clicking on things in emails or websites.

If you do get infected, don’t pay the ransom – immediately disconnect from the Internet so your information isn’t sent back to the criminals, and be sure to alert the authorities – your local FBI. If you have backed up your computer as suggested, then you can just turn off the computer and do a new install (or restore to factory settings) and then put your programs and files back on. If you didn’t get around to this, then check out Eric Geier’s awesome article for PCWorld in which he explains three levels of Ransomware and how to restore your computer if you got infected and don’t have it backed up. His advice can be found HERE. (It’s a great medium-length read even if you haven’t been infected and his best advice – BACKUP YOUR COMPUTER!)

Back-up your computer regularly to save your family and yourself from this growing threat. That can seem like a daunting task, but make it THIS weekend’s priority. It will take a few hours at the most, and you will all sleep better afterward. If you feel really freaked out by this task, then make an appointment at your local computer store (Apple, Best Buy, GeekSquad) and have them set up automatic backups for you. It will be worth the time and minimal amount of money to not lose those precious memories, important work files, client information or student papers.

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