Picture this: You’ve spent the last few weeks working on a tribute video for a friend’s 30th wedding anniversary. You collected photos and video clips and edited them together, laying over a soundtrack of their favorite songs. It was a real labor of love.
When you finally finish the project, you go to copy the file onto a DVD and—what the?—a strange message pops up.
“The files on this computer have been encrypted. You have 96 hours to submit payment, otherwise your files will be permanently destroyed.”
You’ve been hit with ransomware.
You didn’t back up the anniversary video. In fact, you haven’t backed up any of your files in months. What do you do?
Unfortunately, when it comes to ransomware, once your files are encrypted, there’s not much you can do—besides cut your losses or pay up. And even if you do pay up, there’s a chance you won’t get your files back, so you’re out the files and your cash.
For businesses around the world, the stakes are even higher. The massive WanaCryt0r outbreak was the largest ransomware attack in the history of the Internet, freezing hospital workers out of critical data and disrupting operations of organizations in 150 countries. Following up, NotPetya and BadRabbit made 2017 the year of ransomware.
These types of attacks can have a devastating impact, from losing precious personal data to shutting down hospital services in the middle of emergency procedures. In some cases, it’s a matter of life or death.
That’s why it’s so important to prevent ransomware attacks from happening in the first place.
Types of ransomware
The first step in ransomware prevention is to recognize the different types of ransomware you can be hit with. Ransomware can range in seriousness from mildly off-putting to Cuban Missile Crisis severe.
Not quite a true ransomware, scareware uses similar tactics to freeze users out of their normal browsing activity in order to scare victims into paying for a “service” they don’t need. Scareware includes rogue security software and tech support scams. You might receive a pop-up message claiming that a bajillion pieces of malware were discovered and the only way to get rid of them is to pay up.
If you do nothing, you’ll likely continue to be bombarded with pop-ups, but your files are essentially safe. A quick scan from your security software should be able to clear out these suckers. For simple instructions on how to clean an affected computer, check out our step-by-step guide.
Pro tip: A legitimate cybersecurity software program would not solicit customers in this way. If you don’t already have this company’s software on your computer, then they would not be monitoring you for ransomware infection. If you do have this company’s software, you wouldn’t need to pay to have the infection removed—you’ve already paid for the software to do that very job.
Upgrade to terror alert orange for these guys. When lock-screen ransomware gets on your computer, it means you’re frozen out of your PC entirely. Upon starting up your computer, a full-size window will appear, often accompanied by an official-looking FBI or U.S. Department of Justice seal saying illegal activity has been detected on your computer and you must pay a fine.
In order to reclaim control of your PC, a full system restore might be in order. If that doesn’t work, you can try running a scan from a bootable CD or USB drive.
Pro tip: The FBI would not freeze you out of your computer or demand payment for illegal activity. If they suspected you of piracy, child pornography, or other cybercrimes, they would go through the appropriate legal channels.
This is the truly nasty stuff. These are the guys who snatch up your files and encrypt them, demanding payment in order to decrypt and redeliver. The reason why this type of ransomware is so dangerous is because once cybercriminals get ahold of your files, no security software or system restore can return them to you. Unless you pay the ransom—they’re gone. And even if you do pay up, there’s no guarantee the cybercriminals will give you those files back.
Pro tip: The FBI has changed its position on whether folks should pay the ransom. They now agree with cybersecurity professionals, who advise you to avoid this option. Complying with ransomware criminals just opens the door up for future attacks. If, however, really valuable files are at stake, you can try to negotiate the release of the most important for less money. This should only be done as a last resort.
So what should you do to protect your files from this kind of ransomware? Get out in front of it.
“If any attack in the history of malware proves that you need protection in place before the attack happens, encrypting ransomware is it,” says Adam Kujawa, Director of Malwarebytes Labs. “It’s too late once you get infected. Game over.”
The first step in ransomware prevention is to invest in awesome cybersecurity—a program with real-time protection that’s designed to thwart advanced malware attacks such as ransomware. You should also look out for for features that will both shield vulnerable programs from threats (an anti-exploit technology) as well as block ransomware from holding files hostage. Customers who were using Malwarebytes Premium, for example, were protected from the WanaCrypt0r attack.
Next, as much as it may pain you, you need to create secure backups of your data on a regular basis. You can purchase USBs or an external hard drive where you can save new or updated files—just be sure to physically disconnect the devices from your computer after backing up, otherwise they can become infected with ransomware, too. Cloud storage is another option, but we recommend using a server with high-level encryption and multiple-factor authentication.
Then, be sure your systems and software are updated. Many ransomware and other malware attacks take advantage of vulnerabilities in Microsoft software. While the company regularly releases patches for security loopholes, many folks don’t install the updates—which leaves them open to attack.
We get that it’s hard to stay on top of an ever-growing list of updates from an ever-growing list of software and applications used in your daily life. That’s why we recommend changing your settings to enable automatic updating.
Finally, stay informed. One of the most common ways that computers are infected with ransomware is through social engineering. Educate yourself on how to detect phishing campaigns, suspicious websites, and other scams. And above all else, exercise common sense. If it seems suspect, it probably is.