Just when you thought things were quieting down, new ransomware attacks are taking information hostage around the globe. The malicious malware doesn’t discriminate – its victims range from organizations such as schools and hospitals to regular unsuspecting computer users in their homes. Small businesses are particularly a hard-hit, and even smartphones are potentially susceptible to these attacks.

While a young expert is being touted as a hero in cybersecurity circles after finding a loophole to contain last week’s WannaCry outbreak – a global ransomware epidemic that affected over 230,000 computers in at least 150 countries – hacker groups are doing their utmost to chip away at the new defense, bombarding it with DDoS attacks.

This week, a new ransomware attack called XData is reaching critical levels in Ukraine and Russia, and is threatening to quickly spill over international borders.

 

So what is ransomware exactly, and how do we prevent it?

Ransomware is a form of malware that infects a device and then encrypts user data, leaving the computer owner unable to access their own files. The software then demands a ransom – hence the name – to be paid in bitcoin in order for the victim to be able to access their data.

It is not recommended to pay this ransom, which in the case of WannaCry is ranging from $300 – $600, because there is no guarantee that the perpetrators will actually release your data. In fact, despite the wide-ranging damage and massive scope of the WannaCry attack, it is estimated that the masterminds came away with a mere $100,000.

wannacry ransomware alert

While it looks like WannaCry was a self-replicating bug that sought out vulnerable machines and then infected entire networks, ransomware can also be spread by opening unsafe email links, phishing, downloading infected software, and through contaminated USB devices.

Still, it’s not impossible to buttress your defenses against this unwanted intruder. Here are five ways you can protect yourself against malware:

Turn on Windows Update

This is by far the easiest and most critical step in protecting against ransomware, and WannaCry in particular. Microsoft identified the vulnerability back in March, months before the attack that impacted the world. So why were so many computers infected? They simply didn’t update their software.

We know that the notifications, like the one above, can be annoying. Just as annoying are the “Windows is now updating” and “don’t unplug your machine” messages when you want to hurry up and get to the next episode of “Inhumans,” but really, is it more annoying than having all your data taken hostage?

Make sure you update your software as soon as you see the new version release. It could save you a lot of trouble, and possibly money.

 

Install anti-ransomware software

 Another “no duh” move, but still, have you done this yet? And you probably wouldn’t, unless we told you to. If you’re spotting a trend, it’s that ransomware targets the unprotected machines of those who don’t know better or are too lazy to do anything about it. You don’t want to fall into either of those two categories. We suggest Avast or Malwarebytes as pretty solid options, but feel free to do a little research.

 

Be careful on public networks

This is also super easy to do, and equally important. Besides the fact the WannaCry thrived by spreading in-network, there are other vulnerabilities you’re exposed to if you log on to a network at a local cafe, library, or airport.

Always make sure to select the “public network” setting when accessing these networks – not only does that prevent other people from poking around inside your files, it also closes up vulnerable ports. In particular, open ports mean open access to the bad guys. You should also close Bluetooth or Infrared ports if you’re not using them.

 

Be careful what you click

 Like we said earlier, ransomware is also spread through the usual ways – phishing, bad links, infected software and USB sticks. It bears mentioning to remain vigilant against suspicious looking emails or unidentified hyperlinks. We know, those methods are mainly used against grandparents, right? So then why does it only take one unthinking click for us to have that, “oh drat” moment? Don’t get smug about security – we’re all vulnerable.

 

Back up your files

There are a few ways you can back up your information – on the cloud, via an external drive, etc., but the main thing is that you make sure to back it up on a separate device. This way, if hackers try to hold your data hostage, you at least have copies. Think about it, do you want to be like that writer who loses the novel they’ve been working on when their briefcase falls open and all the pages fly away in the wind? Well, this is the modern equivalent.

One exception is backing up on Windows with a System Restore, but there are pros and cons to this which can get a little complicated. It can be time-consuming, take up a lot of space, and the results can be spotty. But it’s still a decent option when compared with the alternative.

Overall, just make sure that you’ve got a backup plan. In a world full of cyber threats, you’ve got to watch your own back.

 

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