Ransomware: Taking Your Computer Hostage

Typically received through an email attachment or download, ransomware is a category of malicious software that disables the functionality of a computer in some way. The ransomware program displays a message that demands payment to restore functionality. The malware, in effect, holds the computer ransom. In other words, ransomware is an extortion racket.

Over time, ransomware has evolved using various techniques to disable a computer. The most recent technique locks the computer display and hinders the user from accessing any programs or files. Then a message appears often claiming to be law enforcement and warning users that they "have browsed illicit materials and must pay a fine." Once installed, the program will take over your computer, locking it from use – or in extreme cases, encrypting all your files. In order to regain access, you will have to pay a certain amount of money to the ransomware author. The program is accompanied by a timer which will either increase the ransom amount as time passes or permanently lock all files when the time expires.

The best (and sometimes only) way to protect against ransomware is to take precautions and remain vigilant for suspicious e-mails and websites. Also, be sure to:
  • Back up your data. A regularly scheduled backup of all your data can solve almost any issue. However, it is important to remember that malware, including ransomware, can still infect any drive connected to the infected computer. If using an external hard drive, always disconnect after backing up your files. Cloud-based backup services, especially those that scan before uploading, are particularly useful.
  • Keep your operating system and anti-virus software up-to-date. Patches and fixes, including protection against the newest malware threats, are often included in updates. Most programs can be set to automatically update.
  • Do not open unfamiliar email attachments or links. Even emails from a trusted source may have become unintentionally infected. Always make sure you know exactly what the file is and who it is from. Most email clients have the option of scanning an attachment before it is opened, but even visiting a simple website address may lead to a malware download.

Have questions? We're here to help!

If you have questions about cybersecurity, or if you want to learn more about how to stay safe online, contact the Information Security Office (ISO) at: ciso@miami.edu