Ransomware is on the rise, and if a ransomware attack turns your most important files into encrypted gibberish and you are blackmailed to pay to get those files back is your only option, then you're in big trouble.
Ransomware protection has become more important than ever to safeguard your sensitive data from cybercriminals.
Learn more about what ransomware is, the different types of ransomware attacks, and effective ransomware protection against cyber criminals getting into your computer or operating system.
What Is Ransomware?
Ransomware is a type of malicious software (or malware) that encrypts computer files, so you no longer have access to your data.
To get the decryption key, you have to pay a certain amount of money to the attackers—hence, the term ‘ransomware.'
Cybercriminals typically use ransomware to infiltrate a network of connected computers in an organization or company.
Why? Because they usually deal with sensitive data AND have the means to pay the ransom.
Currently, average ransom demand costs are around $170,000, but some big firms have paid millions of dollars to regain access to their data.
Although they eventually got their data back, they had to shell out a HUGE amount of money in the process.
What's worse is, with some attackers, you might not even regain access to your files after you pay the ransom!
How Does Ransomware Enter Your System?
Have you ever received a strange email that contains an external link or an attachment? Chances are, it's a phishing email that has the ability to spread ransomware all over your network.
Remember, malware can automatically be downloaded onto your device without your knowledge when you accidentally visit a suspicious website or download malicious content.
Unfortunately, ransomware attacks can be disguised as innocent (and even well-meaning) emails too!
Cybercriminals typically use social engineering tactics to gain access to your data, so you shouldn't trust any links or attachments you receive online, even if it's from a friend or family member.
With that said, you should definitely watch out for strange online behavior from people you communicate with.
If their accounts are compromised, they could unknowingly spread malicious software to you and everyone else on their network through a simple message.
Always be vigilant online!!
Ransomware vs. Malware
Earlier, I mentioned malicious software or ‘malware' for short. Ransomware is a type of malware, but both terms cannot be used interchangeably.
While ransomware specifically refers to software that locks your data until you pay the ransom, malware is a broader category that includes viruses, spyware, and other data-damaging software.
However, you should know that there are different types of ransomware attacks, all with varying degrees of severity. I'll talk about that next so that you know how to tell them apart!
What Are the Different Types of Ransomware Attacks?
Crypto ransomware encrypts important data such as your folders, photos, and videos, but it won't block your computer functions.
You'll still be able to see your files, but you won't be able to open, access, or edit them.
Most crypto-ransomware attacks will also include a countdown timer to pressure their victims.
Because attackers threaten to delete all of your computer data once the deadline has passed, most people—especially those without backup files—opt to pay the money immediately.
Unlike crypto-ransomware, locker ransomware literally locks a user out of his PC.
Basic computer functions are blocked, so you won't be able to view your screen properly or access your desktop—much less open your files!
All you'll see is the message from the attackers, indicating how much money you need to pay to regain control of your computer.
Fortunately, with locker ransomware, your data is rarely affected.
This type of malware targets your operating system rather than individual files, so it's unlikely that your data will be completely destroyed or deleted.
Attackers that use doxware or leakware threaten to release your computer data online if you refuse to pay a ransom.
Organizations that work with a lot of sensitive information are usually the TARGETS of this ransomware attack because they have a LOT to lose.
However, even prominent individuals with private, personal data can fall victim to this type of malware.
They could face a lot of backlash (and even legal issues!) if this content is publicly posted online.
Ransomware as a Service (RaaS)
Ransomware as a Service, also known as RaaS, is a dangerous ransomware variant that enables even less experienced hackers to access user data!
How does this malware work?
RaaS is an affiliate-based model, which means that attackers can use already-developed malware to break into your network.
Affiliates are typically paid high commissions for each successful ransom payment, so more cybercriminals are incentivized to sign up and distribute the malware.
Like other types of ransomware, it can be difficult to detect RaaS attack attempts immediately, especially if they're hidden in a convincing phishing email.
Unfortunately, once you click on the link, your entire computer system will automatically be compromised.
Other Ransomware Variants
Besides the four variants mentioned above, there are many other types of ransomware that have been developed to target specific users, networks, or operating systems.
For instance, a ransomware program could infiltrate your mobile device as soon as you download a malicious app or open a strange text message.
Even Mac computers, which supposedly offer more antivirus protection compared to Microsoft ones, have fallen prey to ransomware infection in the past.
Because cybercriminals continue to create, develop, and distribute malware online, it really is vital to have proper anti-ransomware tools in place for the optimal protection of your data.
What Are Some Examples of Ransomware Attacks?
Did you know that one of the first known ransomware attacks happened all the way back in 1989?
An AIDS researcher hid a malware program in floppy disks, claiming that it would analyze a person's risk of contracting AIDS.
However, once a user had rebooted his computer exactly 90 times, the malware would automatically activate, encrypting his files and locking out all of the data.
Only when the user wired the ransom payment would he regain access.
Although the AIDS Trojan problem was successfully solved after some time, it remains one of the most impactful ransomware attacks in history.
CryptoLocker, on the other hand, was a form of ransomware that spread primarily through email attachments.
This type of malware was a bit more sophisticated, as it could filter through your data, select important files, and encrypt them.
Over 500,000 people were affected by this ransomware in 2007. Luckily, government agencies were able to step in and unlock the data without paying any ransom.
Petya ransomware, which surfaced in 2016, encrypted devices' entire hard disks and locked users out of all their data.
Because this ransomware was hidden through a Dropbox link in applications sent to companies' HR departments, it spread rapidly throughout different networks and had massive, debilitating effects.
This was also one of the first ransomware variants that developed into a RaaS operation.
Like CryptoLocker, Locky is a type of ransomware that's hidden in malicious email attachments.
Unfortunately, many people fell for this phishing scam, and Locky was able to encrypt over 160 data types across different networks.
This ransomware specifically targeted files used by developers, designers, engineers, and other technical professionals.
WannaCry was one of the biggest and most crippling ransomware attacks worldwide, affecting over 150 countries in 2017.
It took advantage of vulnerabilities in outdated Windows software, giving it the ability to infiltrate hundreds of thousands of devices, including those used in big corporations and hospitals.
As a result, each user was locked out of his network.
To restore the data, the attackers demanded a huge ransom, payable in Bitcoin.
Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies couldn't crack the case quickly enough this time around, which resulted in worldwide financial damage of around $4 billion.
Ransomware didn't just target Microsoft devices. It attacked Apple ones too.
KeRanger was actually one of the first types of ransomware to infiltrate iOS devices, mainly through the Transmission application.
Although this was quickly addressed by security teams in a day, around 6,500 devices were already affected by the time the app was taken down.
Ransomware in 2021
Do DarkSide and REvil ring a bell?
Maybe you've heard them on the news—after all, these cybercrime groups are responsible for recent attacks on big companies like Colonial Pipeline, JBS Foods, Brenntag, and Acer.
Because some of these corporations deal with natural resources, utilities, and essential goods, any ransomware attacks that target them also have massive effects on the economy.
Now, although law enforcement agencies are working with these entities to resolve ransomware issues, many of them have had to pay ransom to prevent the situation from escalating further. Clearly, ransomware remains a big threat in 2021.
Am I a Potential Target for a Ransomware Attack?
Knowing all this scary information about ransomware, you probably want to know if you're a potential target of ransomware.
Typically, cybercriminals focus on larger entities like
- Schools and universities
- Government agencies
- Hospitals and medical facilities
These organizations utilize networks to share and store important data.
How so? A security breach could give an attacker access to a wealth of sensitive, private, and personal information.
More often than not, these groups are willing to pay a ransom amount to shut down the problem as quickly as possible.
However, keep in mind that anyone can be a victim of ransomware.
This form of malware can hide behind emails, web pages, and even messaging apps. ONE WRONG CLICK could expose your data to these attackers.
To avoid ransom demands, make sure that you have adequate ransomware protection.
Ransomware Protection and Prevention Tips
Speaking of ransomware protection and prevention, what's the best way to do it?
#1 – Always Have an Updated External Backup of Your Files
The first step is to backup your data to an external hard drive.
Anyone who regularly uses a computer should make this a habit—after all, a data backup doesn't just protect you in the event of a ransomware breach; it saves you from data loss!
Now, listen up because this is an important tip: Modern technology allows you to utilize cloud storage for hassle-free backup services, but you shouldn't solely rely on it to keep your files safe.
NOTE: Hackers can't remotely access documents, photos, and videos on a physical storage device, but online cloud storage can definitely be infiltrated.
If you prefer to backup daily to the cloud, feel free to do so, but you should definitely still backup to your hard drive from time to time. Better safe than sorry!
#2 – Install Anti-Virus and Anti-Ransomware Technology
The next step is to use anti-ransomware and antivirus solutions to strengthen your computer's level of protection.
Usually, a trusted security suite is your best bet, as it comes with multiple software utilities to prevent viruses and ransomware from entering the system.
Some of its useful functions include:
- Virus scanners and ransomware protection to automatically remove threats from your computer
- Built-in email spam filters to redirect any strange-looking messages to a separate folder
- Website authentication to evaluate web pages' safety and block you from accessing harmful ones, if necessary
- Firewalls to prevent inappropriate network access and suspicious network activity
- Password storage and protection to keep your log-in details, personal information, and other sensitive details safe and secure from hackers
Premium packages may even include more advanced features like VPN, centralized management for large networks, multi-device security, DNS filtering, and backup capabilities.
Some popular security suite providers include Norton360, Bitdefender, Kaspersky, McAfee, and Trend Micro. Feel free to check them out if you need one!
They have multiple packages available on their websites, so you can pick the most suitable option for you.
#3 – Are You Still on Windows 7? Get That Updated ASAP!
If you've been delaying your software updates, you should know that these are essential to keep your computer safe from ransomware!
Companies release these updates to improve your device's performance and protect you from emerging threats and security vulnerabilities.
Hackers will ALWAYS try to find new ways to break into existing software.
Big brands like Apple and Microsoft have to respond accordingly and provide users with safer and more updated security measures!
Older software like Windows 7 will definitely be more prone to ransomware infection because cybercriminals have had sufficient time to study, analyze, and break into the weak points in their systems.
Now that should definitely get you to update your computer ASAP!
#4 – Use VPN for Added Protection While Browsing Online
Although WiFi networks from public service providers are easy and convenient, they're definitely not the safest, as you can unknowingly leave traces of your online activity.
Instead, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to help keep your data secure. VPN lets you encrypt the data that you share and/or provide online.
If ever this information gets intercepted, it'll be much more difficult—almost impossible—to decipher.
Without VPN, you're essentially trusting all of the internet apps and sites you visit with your personal information, even if you don't know just how secure they really are.
If you're one to make lots of payments online, be extra cautious! Hackers might be able to gain access to your credit card details, banking information, and other confidential financial data.
However, not all VPN providers are legitimate. When choosing one, make sure it's a trusted brand with quality service and many great reviews.
Ideally, it's better if your friends and family have already tried it out
#5 – Stay Vigilant: Never Trust Strange Links or Attachments!
My last tip is no less important than the other four: Always be cautious! Don't trust everything you see, read, or receive online.
Ransomware is really no joke, and it can be disguised under a seemingly innocent shape or form, such as a simple message from a friend.
REMEMBER: Strange links or attachments that you have to download are usually red flags, so always double-check with the sender just in case.
As a general rule of thumb, it's safe to download directly from the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store, but websites without a secure address should definitely be avoided.
Usually, pop-up ads that redirect to external links are unsafe, so refrain from clicking on these photos while browsing the web.
Here are some other signs that you're dealing with potentially malicious content:
- Monetary offers and the promise of free items
- Random requests for personal and financial information
- Cluttered web pages with multiple adverts and pop-out windows
- Deals and product offers that seem too good to be true
- Unsolicited emails from people you've never heard of
- Messages meant to induce panic and provoke a quick response
What Should I Do If My Computer Gets a Ransomware Attack?
What if you've been attacked by ransomware before you've even implemented these safety precautions? Well, you have three options:
- Pay the ransom to get your data back.
- Reset to factory settings and start from scratch. (This is where an external backup would come in handy.)
- Attempt to remove the ransomware with a decryption tool.
Option three will not always work, but older variants of ransomware will likely have decryption keys available online, so it's worth checking these out if they'll be of any use!
On the other hand, option two will successfully remove the malware, but you'll lose all of your data if you don't have a backup handy.
Now, this might be fine if your computer is mainly for personal use, but this option will definitely be a nightmare for corporations who could face legal issues concerning data leaks.
If the infected computer is a part of a larger network, it's a good idea to isolate the problem to avoid it from spreading to other devices.
You can either temporarily shut down the network or disconnect the infected computer/s immediately.
Afterward, you should contact your local authorities to help you investigate and resolve the issue. Refer to your company's cyber incident response plan for the next steps!
This should help you mitigate the problem and focus on data recovery, if necessary.
Should I Pay the Ransom?
It all comes down to this: Should you pay a ransom? The answer isn't as black and white as people think.
On the one hand, it's a horrible practice to give in to the demands of these cybercriminals. It not only legitimizes their actions but also encourages them to continue making a profit with these methods.
Moreover, just because you pay ransom doesn't mean you'll get your full data back.
Sometimes, you'll still experience technical issues after decryption, and in the worst-case scenario, hackers will leave you hanging even after you've wired them the money!
However, you may find that your only option is to pay up if you can't find a solution or under a lot of time pressure.
Ideally, though, you'll never have to make this decision because you've followed all the precautionary and preventive methods above.
Although ransomware attacks are prevalent, especially in today's modern world, it only takes a few extra steps to protect yourself from their seriously damaging effects.
With my tips and tricks for ransomware prevention, you'll definitely be able to heighten the security around your computer and/or network, making it less likely for you to fall victim to these attacks.
Just make sure to implement these guidelines ASAP to prevent any issues in the future!
Good luck, and remember, always stay vigilant online!