It is bad enough to experience a “typical” virus or malware infection on your computer. With luck, you catch it early and scrub the problem with software tools. Worst case, you reformat and reinstall your OS, restoring files from your [always up to date!] backups. “Ransomware,” however, introduces a particularly insidious component that justifies extra caution and preparation…
In short, and as the name implies, this malware variant is intended to hold your files and/or system “hostage” until a fee is paid. This is often done by encrypting personal files on the hard drive. You haven’t lost any data (yet), but without the key, you can not access it. As you might expect, it is common for victims to pay the hacker and never receive instructions for decrypting their files.
An interesting twist on the scheme involves locking the operating system itself, and displaying a screen that accuses the user of a range of crimes, from copyright violations to child pornography. The message claims to be sent from the FBI, and instructs the user to pay a “fine” in order to unlock their machine. Here is a screenshot of one such scam:
The best defense against ransomware is, of course, a good offense. The use of quality anti-virus and anti-malware tools is a must, and limiting the use of scripting and plug-ins within your browser will also help (check out NoScript for this). Most important is a good backup strategy. Full “offline” backups should be done frequently, with incremental backups to protect the most recent files. These measures will reduce your exposure, but are still no guarantee that you won’t be hacked. Also important is resisting the temptation to pay the hacker for what seems like a “quick fix.” You’ll never be sure that your data will be released, and the thieves could easily leave behind spyware or otherwise target you again – after all, you paid once…
More Information and Resources:
TechWorld: Ransom malware gangs making huge profits, Symantec discovers
Here is the Symantec report referenced in the article above.
New York Times: For PC Virus Victims, Pay or Else