Ransomware: How To Protect Yourself

 In emerging tech

Ransomware: “…What now?”

Ransomware. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’re staring blankly at this screen wondering what’s wrong with me. Sadly, that may have nothing to do with ransomware and yet, still be completely valid. Nonetheless, by the end of this article, we will have you tuned in to just what ransomware is and how it can impact your life. We’ll even throw in some suggestions of how to potentially protect against it. Strap in, this one can be a bit scary.

The thing is, ransomware is not just for big corporations or governments. Yours truly has had to deal with ransomware.

So what is Ransomware?

It’s likely safe to say most folks have heard of a ransom. Something precious is taken from you and the only way you can get it back is through a hefty payment of sorts. It’s a horrifying thought, and a popular thing to write movies and books about. But this is 2019. Ransoms are so 1980s. Ransomware is now the big buzzword in science and technology. But let’s illustrate with a movie anyway to get everyone in the mood.

Man On Fire: A Perfect Ransomware Metaphor

Remember the film Man on Fire? It starred Denzel Washington, Christopher Walken and a young Dakota Fanning (along with a Marc Anthony sighting!!). This was ransom at it’s best — or worst, really given how horrible it is — in a Hollywood setting. A young girl (Dakota) of a wealthy Mexican family has a bodyguard (Denzel) who watches out for her safety. She is kidnapped and held for ransom until a massive sum of money is paid. Essentially, the payment doesn’t go as planned, there is a bunch of shady corruption going on behind the scenes, and Denzel just goes off on everyone involved. It is not a movie for kids, but fairly entertaining as far as revenge movies go.

So now imagine that the files on your computer are your Dakota Fanning. Then imagine that you, or some form of Anti-Virus software, are Denzel, trying to protect your files at all costs. You love your files, they are valuable to you, representing memories or important information about your life. Then along comes some version of the Mexican Cartel (here played by ransomware) to take your files hostage. They do so by encrypting the files at a level so impenetrable, that only they have the key to unlock them. It then becomes very simple — and scary. Either pay them for the key (these days through cryptocurrencies over US Dollars) or risk having the files locked up or destroyed.

Real Life Ransomware Examples

In truth, ransomware is downright horrible. Most people likely do not take the time to back up their software, even though these days it is a breeze. Whether doing it yourself with an external hard drive or having a continuous backup system, it just makes sense to keep your files in a duplication somewhere away from your computer. Whether or not you back up files, you or your business will always be vulnerable to a ransomware attack.

Ugh, Do I Seriously Have Ransomware?

Image by josemiguels Pixabay

The thing is, ransomware is not just for big corporations or governments. Yours truly has had to deal with ransomware. What’s even worse is, I’m as vanilla as it gets with internet searches and email. I simply avoid clicking things that I don’t recognize. However, something must have tripped me up because one day I suddenly received a real cryptic message about my files now being held hostage. At the time, I was new to ransomware, so I actually thought it was some dumb pop-up from a website and I attempted to ignore it.

The problem was, I then went to my files to open them and basically every file appeared like @#$#@^(@#%#@(&#@. Right. So I went back to the pop-up and quickly began to understand how screwed I was. I tried downloading additional anti-virus software; I tried cleaning my disk drives; even did the ole power down and restart. Yup, screwed.

I can not recall which computer build this was — it’s a hobby of mine to build my own computers — but luckily I was not far into this build. The files that it had hi-jacked were of little value to me or I had them backed up elsewhere. I used a type of nuclear software to blast my hard drive clean and just rebuilt the system. You want to nuke my files, ransomware? I’ll do it for you *click*.

Nonetheless, this was a scary lesson in what can happen to you if you’re careless with your data. Heck, even if you are careful, it can still nail you. These criminals are writing more sophisticated software than ever, so we need to be aware of what’s out there and how it typically ends up your computer.

Common Types of Ransomware

Knowledge is power. Knowing what ransomware is out there and what it does to your machine is crucial in understanding and preventing it. Let’s take a look at some recent types and their traits. Then we can discuss avoidance tactics and some of the more popular software solutions.

Breaking Bad

Now why did they have to go and destroy the name of one of my favorite shows? If you are familiar with Walter White and the popular methamphetamine show Breaking Bad, this ransomware takes it’s name from it. They send you an email with a zip file and a very credible PDF. The PDF resembles a delivery service (think Amazon or UPS, etc). Once you click the zip, your toast.

Once the malware is on your computer, it quickly locks up your most important files with AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). It then attaches a RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) token key to unlock the encryption. In short, they block you from accessing your files and only they have the key.

They go after your documents, pictures, music and videos. The ransom is something like $800 but in bitcoin. It also has a deadline attached so you need to move fast. This specific ransomware is big in Australia, but suffice to say many flavors just like it exist everywhere.

Cryptolocker

Yes, I know, another blockbuster name (remember the movie Hurt Locker?) Apparently, the thieves of the internet have a penchant for Hollywood. This one was very much like Breaking Bad above. They’d encrypt files on your operating system, in particular Windows, and demand some $650 in bitcoin.

This code was isolated in 2014 and effectively disarmed, as most anti-virus software figured out the protections necessary. But it was a crafty piece of software as the code actually had the ability to morph on the spot, making it hard to understand for those attempting to arrest it.

These guys were particularly ruthless as well. Sometimes, even after paying the ransom, they still refused to de-crypt your files. That’s some hot garbage right there. The problem is, many of today’s ransomware acts in a similar fashion to Cryptolocker.

GandCrab

Recent ransomware is truly making online theft and pain a business model. GandCrab is actively recruiting across the web. Once a recruit is in tow, they use a coordinated network to strike specific entities and bring them to their knees for maximized damage.

Obviously this is a horrifying approach. Where before the ransoms may have been local to discrete individuals or systems, ransomware is now targeting large entities (police offices, public buildings, hospitals, doesn’t matter). Subsequently, they can demand even more than before because so many of these systems are interconnected and crippling them immediately constitutes an emergency.

This type of ransomware is appearing more frequently in the news. These public entities are forced to pay up because there are no current solutions for some of the variants of this software. As the ransomware scales in size, maximizing it’s impact, it becomes harder and harder to disarm or prevent.

Combating Ransomware

Now the good news. Yes, just as the criminals are smart, so are the good guys. There is protective software out there, depending on your need. Both preventive software and software used to eliminate ransomware exist. While there are some free options, it will depend on the user to determine what works best for them. Keep in mind, you do get what you pay for when it comes to this topic. After some research, here were some of the top choices in the field of ransomware.

Bitdefender

Bitdefender is a fairly popular one around the web. The software is designed with ransomware in mind. It uses a multi-layer approach to attack and protect against ransomware. This includes active threat protection to thwart attacks against your files. Effectively, they wrap your precious files in a blanket of armor, preventing unauthorized access.

Ransomware Defense - Antivirus Solutions
Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay

The software is designed to be actively scanning and changing as the landscape of ransomware is changing. Without knowing the algorithm, it’s hard to say just how effective their software can be. That being said, reviews of the software are high. It also offers additional features such as a VPN, password manager and online banking security to make it an attractive anti-virus solution.

Webroot Internet Security Complete

This flavor of Webroot is a broader sweeping anti-virus solution. While ransomware is part of their protection schema, it targets the device experience as its specialty. That is, how fast and transparent the software is on a given device vs other software solutions.

While seemingly not as ransomware focused as Bitdefender, it does have additional features such as the password and identity theft protection. It does come at a more attractive price point, with more devices covered. Overall, it provides preventative protection against ransomware while offering additional anti-virus solutions.

Kaspersky Total Security

Kaspersky is a fairly well-known name in internet security. Much like Webroot above, it’s main goal is to prevent ransomware from ever making it on your machine. It too touts speed and transparency to system operations (though not with statistics as Webroot advertises). This flavor provides all the bells as whistles as well, including secure banking, password tracking and online privacy protection.

This software also provides the option to cover your children with various layers of protection as well. The family feature could be an enticing given kids are likely to be more susceptible to suspicious links or emails. So if you are looking for a brand name, with rewards to boot, this is a fairly good value to prevent against ransomware.

The Future of Ransomware

All lightheartedness of Jarkable aside, this is some serious stuff. Not only is ransomware scary to the normal user, it is now being targeted to bigger entities that impact larger society, as mentioned above.

Future Ramifications

To give you an idea of future headaches ransomware can cause in major corporations or government industries, read the following from csoonline. It is highlighting the ransomware Bashe and the financial impact it can have on large industries:

While the proposed ransom would be relatively low at around $700 per infection (or $350 per device to clean up or replace without paying the ransom) the calculated costs include cyber-incident response, damage control and mitigation, business interruption, lost revenue, and reduced productivity, and vary from $85 billion to $193 billion depending on the severity of the attack. The criminal organization that developed Bashe would bring in $1.14 to $2.78 billion in extortion revenues.
https://bit.ly/2H9RZ9K

Yahtzee, right? That’s not good for anyone, except maybe the crooks. And given the online nature of ransomware, it can be easier in some cases to cover ones’ tracks. This assumes they know what they are doing, and given they are developing malware against some of the biggest corporations — Microsoft, Apple, Android — it’s likely they know a thing or two about the world wide web and software development.

Keep your files backed up offline. Go get a token layer of protection via anti-virus software, even if it’s free. And be suspicious of links or attachments that simply seem out of the norm. Most entities these days house all data you’d ever need on their website. There just isn’t much of a need to send you attachments, so always visit the source or at least ask questions. Bottom line, keep your eyes open and assume the internet is a dangerous place (because it is).

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