You click on an e-mail attachment, or an ad, or visit a website. Malicious code is downloaded to your computer. The code encrypts files on your computer, including your precious family photos and videos. You receive an email or a window pops up informing you that if you fail to pay a ransom of from several hundred to several hundred thousands of dollars, the key to decrypt your files will be destroyed.
Encryption involves a program using a huge randomly generated number, called a key, to encode and scramble the binary data of which a file is made. You can't restore the file without the key. And since the key is such a huge random number, nobody, except the National Security Agency, has the ability to recreate the key and decrypt your files.
In order to pay the ransom you'll need to convert your money to Bitcoin, an untraceable virtual currency. After you convert your money and pay the ransom, the cyber criminals may send the instruction to restore your files.
According to the Internet security firm McAfee, reported ransomware attacks have increase 165 percent in the first quarter of 2015.
To Protect Yourself From a Ransomware Attack
Never open an e-mail attachment, even if it appears to be sent by your employer, a friend, or family. Nothing is easier for a hacker to do than steal your e-mail application's contacts and spoof a contact's email address in an email. If you receive an email attachment, contact the sender to verify that they sent it.
Before you download any software, search for reviews. Malicious code is frequently downloaded along with free games, popup blockers, registry cleaners, and antivirus programs, except the legitimate antivirus software from McAfee and Symantec.
Backup all your files to an external drive. This may be a CD,DVD burner, or a removable hard hard drive. You should back up at least monthly, and depending upon how rapidly you create files, maybe weekly or daily. Keep at least two backup versions, the latest one, and a previous one in case your current backup actually backs up the malicious program along with your files.
If you've put a lot of work into a document, and you don't want those hours wasted, backup the document immediately each time you complete work on it. You can usually do an instant backup by emailing the document to yourself.
Should You Pay the Ransom?
After ransom payment, sometimes the cyber criminals actually release your files. This is because if it were known that ransomware hackers never release anyone's files, their business model would stop working. Sometimes they don't bother to release your files because they've already got your money. I recommend never paying the ransom because, like hostage taking, it just encourages more attacks. In any case, always report it to the Internet Crime Complaint Center
Lastly, take your computer to a qualified computer service shop like the Best Buy Geek Squad where they should wipe your hard drive clean and reinstall the operating system.
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