Protect Yourself from Ransomware

By Reid Goldsborough

Ransomware is a type of malware or malicious software that prevents you or your organization from being able to fully use your computer system until you pay the attackers a ransom.

In February, a hospital in Los Angeles made headlines for giving in to the ransom demand of hackers who used encryption to cripple its internal computer network, including electronic patient records, for three weeks, causing it to lose patients and money. After the hackers initially demanded $3.4 million, the hospital paid them $17,000.

In explaining his decision, Allen Stefanek, president of Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, said, "The quickest and most efficient way to restore our systems and administrative functions was to pay the ransom." The money was transferred through Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency that permits anonymity.

Individuals as well as organizations can fall victim to ransomware, with organizations typically getting hit by larger ransom demands. Organizations hit recently include schools, city councils, and churches.

To help reduce the risk of a ransomware attack or recover from it afterward, follow these steps:

  • Use good security software. Top consumer security suites include Symantec's Norton Security. Fee-based security suites typically are more robust than free tools, including those that come bundled with operating systems such as Windows or Mac OS. If you connect using public Wi-Fi at places such as coffee shops or airports, use virtual private network software such as Hotspot Shield.
  • Practice safe computing. Ransomware commonly is introduced through breaches in an organization's network, rogue websites that install software on your system without your consent, email attachments, or "dark web" file-sharing services. Good security software can prevent many attacks. But if you do dumb things, you still can be vulnerable.
  • Never click on email attachments unless you know the sender, and be careful even if you do. Clicking on such attachments might launch the infected ransomware program or load an infected Microsoft Word or other data file. "Phishing" occurs when a bad guy sends out emails or texts that purport to come from a trusted source, such as your bank or the IRS. If you have suspicions, you can call the company or agency and ask whether such email was sent. Never click on a link in an email message asking you to verify personal or financial information via the web. Despite warnings about phishing, people and organizations still become victim. When phishing tests are conducted within organizations, about 5 percent of employees click on a malicious link no matter how much training they get to prevent this, according to CrowdStrike Chief Technology Officer Dmitri Alperovitchl, speaking at the RSA Conference on information security in March.
  • Be wary of using "dark web" file-sharing software in which illegal copies of software, movies, and music are shared.
  • Keep up-to-date. Older programs and operating systems are more vulnerable to attack. With whatever security software and operating system you're using, enable automatic updates or manually update regularly. With programs that don't offer the option of automatic updating, periodically check for updates, which can usually be done through the Help menu.
  • Back up critical files. Data, whether it's your customer database or your family photos, can be more valuable than hardware or software. The often-repeated solution is to back up important files. Options include using a cloud backup service such as Mozy, a cloud storage service such as Dropbox, a USB flash drive, a rewritable optical disc, an external hard drive, and a backup tape.