Imagine waking up one day, firing up your computer and instead of an anticipated Facebook timeline or Twitter feed, you are met with an on-screen message explaining that your computer has been locked or your files held captive until you make a payment.
This is what thousands of people around the world are waking up to every day. This is the latest cyber threat to hit the 21st century and the criminals are raking in millions. Let examine what exactly is ransomware in detail and see if there is anything you can do about it.
A Brief Background
Security researchers and companies seem to be on the back foot on this one. Ever since cyber criminals reduced their reliance on standard credit card scams, they have been dreaming up new ways of increasing their revenue. The result of their efforts has been ransomware like Cyptolocker, Cryptowall, TeslaCrypt and more recently Wannacry and Petya. Cryptolocker locker first debuted in late 2013 and before global computer users knew what had hit them, the creators of the malware were laughing all the way to bank with a take the FBI estimated to be in excess of $18 million.
When Cyptolocker first hit in 2013, thousands of users reported that a never before seen virus had infected their computers and locked them. The malware was spread via botnets (hijacked computers) that sent out standard phishing links in emails as well as infected downloads. Despite all efforts such as system resets, BIOS flashing, and installing new hard drives, nothing seemed to cure the problem. All they could see was the hacker's message telling them to pay up or else. Later, users started reporting that the hackers were actually meeting their end of the bargain when the ransom was paid. This led to thousands of people paying the ransom just to get back access to their files. In the process, the ransomware industry exploded. Hackers became bold and went on to create many variants and new ransomware strains.
Unlike “normal” malware that spies on the computer and creates backdoors, ransomware provides criminals with a reliable revenue stream. Ransom demands vary from a mere 20 bucks to $600 and in some cases even running into the thousands. The method of payment is almost always in Bitcoin.
The Threat is Now Mobile
Hackers quickly realized that computing is moving to hand-held. As a result, they are now targeting smartphones and tablets. Google Android and Apple iOS has suffered attacked recently. The only advantage with smartphones is that most have an automatic backup for documents and photos which make them somewhat less profitable for hackers.
There are really only two solutions to making sure you don't become a victim. The first is less secure and it involves backing up everything and installing a powerful anti-malware program with real-time ransomware scanning. Ransomware creators rely on the amazing carelessness of human beings. Despite the fact that most people know about the importance of back-ups, few people rarely ever back-up. Which is shocking because free cloud back-ups are available and only take a few minutes to set-up. For example, Google provides 15GB free to anyone with a Google Account. So, if you aren't backing up your most important files, you are only asking for trouble. But, proper back-ups should follow the 3-2-1 rule. Have three backups, two should be stored in a different location from the third. If everyone backed up their important files, criminals would have no incentive to create ransomware.
The second solution involves recovering once you have been targeted. Security researchers have managed to develop fixes for many of the older ransomware variants. So, unless it’s a totally new strain, there should be a USB fix which you can connect to your computer and recover without triggering the ransomware to delete your files.
When ransomware first came onto the scene, it sent shocked the entire planet. Since then, security researchers have studied the attack vectors and techniques and come up with security patches. Please don't ignore security updates. Configure your computer to install security updates automatically so that you never miss a critical update. And, don't forget to backup everything. So long as you have backed up, you have nothing to worry about.