A decade-old form of malicious software known as ransomware has been making headlines after cybercriminals hijacked hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide.
Ransomware, which is often transmitted by email or web pop-ups, involves locking up people’s data and threatening to destroy it if a ransom is not paid. The global cyberattack has affected 200,000 Windows computers in more than 150 countries, including China, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Britain.
The cybercriminals have generally targeted hospitals, academic institutions, blue-chip companies and businesses like movie theater chains. The attacks highlight the challenges that organizations face with consistently applying security safeguards on a large scale.
What can businesses and individuals do to protect themselves from ransomware? Here are some tips from security experts.
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Update your software
Security experts believe the malware that spurred this global attack, called WannaCry, may have initially infected machines by getting people to download it through email. After that, the malicious code was able to easily travel to a broader network of computers that were linked together through the Windows file-sharing system.
(Users of Macs or other non-Windows computers were not affected.)
The most disheartening revelation from the cyberattack was that there was a fix available for the ransomware before the attack. Microsoft, which makes Windows, released a patch for the WannaCry vulnerability eight weeks ago
In other words, if people had simply stayed on top of security updates, their machines would not have been infected.
Consumers can remedy this by configuring their Windows machines to automatically install the latest software updates.
Even though WannaCry specifically targeted Windows machines, that does not mean Mac or Linux users are off the hook in the future. Other breeds of malware may infect various operating systems, so no matter which device you are using, you should regularly update your software to install the latest security enhancements.
Install antivirus software
In addition to keeping Windows up-to-date with the latest security enhancements, antivirus software can prevent malware from infecting your computer. Mr. Kamden of NordVPN said 30 percent of popular antivirus systems were capable of detecting and neutralizing the ransomware.
Of course, with antivirus software, the same principle applies: Make sure to keep the antivirus app up-to-date, too, so it blocks the latest emerging malware
Create backups of your data
In the event that a hacker successfully hijacks your computer, you could rescue yourself with a backup of your data stored somewhere, like on a physical hard drive. That way, if a hacker locked down your computer, you could simply erase all the data from the machine and restore it from the backup.
In general, you should be creating a copy of your data in the first place, in case your computer fails or is lost. To be extra safe from hackers, after backing up your data onto an external drive, unplug the drive from the computer and put it away.
Create a security plan for your business
What to do if already infected
If you are already a victim of ransomware, the first thing to do is disconnect your computer from the internet so it does not infect other machines. Then report the crime to law enforcement and seek help from a technology professional who specializes in data recovery to see what your options might be. If there are none, don’t lose hope: There may be new security tools to unlock your files in the future.
In some extreme cases, it might make sense to pay a ransom if you have no backups and the encrypted files are valuable. But people definitely should not pay the ransom. That’s because the hackers are apparently overloaded with requests from victims asking for their data to be released — and many who have paid the ransom are not hearing back.