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Don’t Let Your PC Get Held For Ransom

By John P. Mello Jr.

“Ransom” may elicit a vision of ships, pirates, and hostages. And while ransoms do take place in dangerous parts of the world, certain forms of ransoms are a lot closer to home. We’re talking about ransomware, malware that holds your computer for ransom and demands some amount of money, to be paid to “unlock” it.

Nothing spurs malware development like success, and that’s likely to be the case in the coming months with ransomware.

Ransomware has been around for about a decade, but it wasn’t until last fall, with the introduction of CryptoLocker, that the malevolent potential of the bad app category was realized. In the last four months of 2013 alone, the malicious software raked in some $5 million, according to Dell SecureWorks. Previously, it took ransomware purveyors an entire year to haul in that kind of money.

So is it any wonder that the latest iteration of this form of digital extortion has attracted the attention of cyber criminals? A compromised personal computer for a botnet or Distributed Denial of Service attack is worth about a buck to a byte bandit, explained Johannes B. Ullrich, chief research officer at the SANS Institute. “With ransomware, the attacker can easily make $100 and more,” he said.

What distinguishes CryptoLocker from past ransomware efforts is its use of strong encryption. Document and image files on machines infected with the Trojan are scrambled using AES 256-bit encryption, and the only way for a keyboard jockey to regain use of the files is to pay a ransom for a digital key to decrypt the data.

How Ransomware Works
There are two primary types of ransomware: Lock screen ransomware and encryption ransomware. Lock screen ransomware displays a full screen image or webpage on your monitor, while encryption ransomware encrypts all the data on your computer. Both forms of ransomware deny access to the data on your computer and may leave you to feel helpless enough to pay the ransom amount. However, unlike the pirates, paying this ransom does not guarantee the criminals will release your computer.

How to Combat Ransomware
Protecting your computer from ransomware involves the same measures you would take to protect your computer from any other malware. Here are a few precautionary steps to fend off not only ransomware but malware in general.

  • Make sure your computer has a two-way firewall and antivirus at minimum, and that these protections are up-to-date and active.
  • Keep your operating system, web browsers, and other software up-to-date.
  • Don’t click on random links or download random files from peer-to-peer networks, spam email messages, or suspicious websites.
  • Beware of fake download pages, such as ones masquerading as an Adobe Flash Player update page. If you need to update your software, go directly to the official site.
  • Regularly back up your computer to an external hard drive or cloud storage

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