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I joined Van and Bonnie for a quick conversation this morning about ransomware, specifically the really awful Cryptolocker program.
In short, ransomware is any virus that takes something on your computer hostage in exchange for a ransom. I should probably say "in purported exchange", because these are hostage-takers -- so they may very well take your ransom payment and destroy what they took hostage anyway.
Some forms of ransomware just try to take your screen hostage, and say that unless you make a payment, you won't be able to use your computer anymore. Other forms (like Cryptolocker) take your data hostage and threaten to destroy it (by encrypting it, thus the "crypto-" part of the name) unless the ransom is paid. One thing is for certain: There will be other forms of ransomware, as well, including types we can't imagine yet.
Who's behind this stuff? It can vary -- ransomware is just a type of criminal activity, so there's no one single type of criminal behind it. But don't be surprised to hear that anyone from a "lone wolf" in a suburban basement to organized crime (all the way out to, and including, known terrorist groups like Al Qaeda) will use ransomware to rob people. Imagine a bloodless crime in which the crook faces zero chance of getting shot by police -- why wouldn't all kinds of evil people want to try it?
Now, the FBI will tell you that if nobody pays the ransom, then people will stop making ransomware. But it's 2013, and people still haven't learned not to click on Viagra offers they get via spam messages. So the prospects of people having the wherewithal to resist paying a ransom to get their precious files back are, well, zero. So it's not going to stop...it's only going to get worse.
How can you protect yourself?
- Use a widely-known, well-regarded, paid version of antivirus software. As of 2013, I'm a proponent of Kaspersky, but there are other legitimate antivirus programs out there as well, like Norton Antivirus. Why do I think it's important to pay for it? Because that's how the research to stop viruses gets funded. Yes, there are free options, and many of them are "good enough" (they're certainly better than no protection at all). But I look at antivirus software as the equivalent of paying for insurance on your car. Antivirus software is relatively cheap (usually $5 or $10 for your smartphone or tablet, and usually $20 or so for your computer, especially if you get a bundle with licenses for more than one machine). And it's outrageously cheap compared with spending hundreds of dollars to data-hostage-takers, or paying a service technician to try to recover files you've lost due to a virus. And, in case you missed the hint a couple of sentences ago, get antivirus protection for your smartphone!
- Don't open suspicious attachments. If it's not a file you specifically expect to get from someone, don't open it. Wonder if it's legitimate? Then pick up the phone and call the sender.
- Use webmail, not desktop-based email. In other words, get your e-mail through a website like Gmail or Yahoo or Hotmail. Don't use Outlook Express or any other program that downloads the mail straight to your computer unless you have to. Keep the separation of a company like Google or Yahoo or Microsoft between you and your mail; they'll help to sort out the viruses before they ever reach your computer.
- Backup to a physical item that stays separate from your computer (like a DVD disc or a portable hard drive that you unplug when you're through with the backup), and keep more than one backup strategy going in more than one place. If it's an irreplaceable file (like home videos or digital pictures of your honeymoon), burn it to a DVD and store it in a safe place. I favor using a safe-deposit box at a bank, but you could just as well save them at a cousin's house someplace far from home -- I recommend saving a copy of your "irreplaceable" files at least 100 miles away from home, just in case something catastrophic (like an F5 tornado) barrels through town and wipes your home off the map. The same precautions that protect you from losing your data to a tornado will protect you from losing precious files to ransomware.
- Stay away from shady neighborhoods on the Internet. There are plenty of ways you can encounter viruses and other types of malware ("malware" being an umbrella term for all kinds of bad programs, including viruses, spyware, keystroke loggers, Trojan horses, and the like), including via perfectly legitimate sites that get hacked. But there are also plenty of sites that should probably give you a bad feeling in your gut, and if you find yourself on one, it's time to leave. If your instincts tell you it's a bad neighborhood on the Internet, you can leave just by clicking the little red "X" on the screen.
- Run your computer on a limited-access account, unless you're specifically updating programs or doing things that require administrator-level access.