Enter ransomware, the newest challenge in our digital world.
Basically, ransomware is malicious software that enters your computer or network and locks up your files until you pay a ransom to get them unlocked. It is a growing problem — one that cost businesses nearly $1 billion last year, according to an article on the FBI website (www.fbi.gov/news/stories/ransomware-on-the-rise). Reports of ransomware in the business world aren’t widely publicized, but schools have been especially hard hit and they are much more likely to tell their stories. The Washington Post reported that a college in California paid $28,000 in bitcoin when hackers ransomed its system, and Education Week reported that a school district in South Carolina paid $10,000 to get instructions on how to regain control of its computer system
If you think ransomware is just a problem for the big guys and large organizations, think again. Large companies are far more careful than the average consumer and many have installed barriers that keep hackers out. However, many of us are casual about our security, leaving us open to this type of problem.
This is how the scam works. You receive a phishing email asking you to click on a link to a webpage. The malicious file downloads onto your computer, encrypting all the files and information on your device.
Then you receive a message with a demand for money in return for the information on how to decrypt your files. You pay up and they send you instructions on how to regain control of your system.
Forty-five percent of consumers have never even heard of ransomware, which makes them particularly vulnerable to this scam. Even those who do know about this practice underestimate the danger and aren’t prepared to handle the threat. Nearly half (48 percent) think they are too small to be a target, but this misconception is belied by the 17 percent of consumers who are victims of ransomware. A more surprising number is that 38 percent of those affected by ransomware pay the $100 to $500 ransom.
A big dose of caution and skepticism will go a long way toward protecting your computers. First, don’t click on any emails from a name or email address that you don’t recognize. If you don’t know whom or where the message comes from, simply delete it without opening.
The second step you can do to protect yourself is to back up your files. Although we all know that we should do this, only 23 percent of us regularly back up our computers. Have at least two sources of backup, one of which shouldn’t be connected to a network. Use an external hard drive, a CD, a thumb drive or a cloud-based system.
Finally, use an antivirus program — it will catch some of the malicious software threats — but don’t be complacent and think your program will catch everything automatically. Your antivirus program should be updated on a regular basis. Companies that make this software are aware of the newest scams and design their programs to react to current and emerging threats.
Ransomware is a serious challenge, but you don’t have to fall into the trap. Take action to protect your computer and your data.
Roxie Rodgers Dinstel is associate director of the Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Questions or column requests can be e-mailed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (907)-474-7201.