Ransomware: What Is It and How Can You Protect Yourself?

I host a Saturday morning tech radio show on the Corus Radio Network. During the show we take calls from the public, answering tech questions and providing advice. Every couple of weeks we get a question relating to ransomware. Most people don’t know much about this unique type of malware and how to protect themselves from it. Here’s a short guide to what you need to know about ransomware.


What is ransomware?

Ransomware is a form of malware that restricts your access to your computer and demands a ransom to release your system. Ransomware comes in two main flavours:


  1. Non-encrypting

Non-encrypting ransomware is the easier of the two to deal with. Regardless, it does a good job of scaring its victims, often into paying the ransom demand. Non-encrypting ransomware will either lock your screen or inundate with pop-ups that prevent you from being able to use your computer.

Lock-screen ransomware displays a full-sized window that usually appears as soon as your operating system starts up and says that you’ve violated the law in some way. The window may have a law enforcement logo making it look official. The window will state that your computer will not be unlocked until you’ve paid the fine.

Pop-up ransomware usually scares you into thinking that your computer has been infected by a virus or some other threat. The ransomware typically looks like an antivirus that has detected a number of threats on your system. When you try to use your computer the ransomware will bombard you with pop-ups telling you that you need to pay a fee to remove these threats.


  1. Encrypting

This ransomware is particularly malicious. Encrypting ransomware will encrypt and lock your personal files until you pay, typically in Bitcoin, to have them released. This breed of ransomware has become increasingly popular with the most common threat being Cryptolocker.


How can you protect yourself?

Now that we’ve established that ransomware can range from annoying to very malicious, let’s look at what you can do about it. Naturally, prevention is the key and there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself:


  1. Keep your system and software up to date

Ransomware often exploits vulnerabilities in software, so it’s important to apply updates to your software and operating system as soon as they come out. These updates are often designed to patch vulnerabilities, making it more difficult for malware to find its way onto your system.


  1. Use antivirus software

Everyone knows you should have a reputable and reliable antivirus on your system. Regardless, people seem to take the risk and ignore the advice frequently, especially those who use Macs and believe that the threats to these systems are rare. The truth is that for many years PCs were the dominant systems in the market. Therefore, more threats were created for PCs because they were able to infect more systems. With the rise in popularity of Macs, the threats have multiplied.

While antivirus software might not seem like a priority or a worthwhile investment, it’s the easiest way to protect your system. Having an active, up-to-date antivirus requires very little effort—you really just need to install it—and the investment pays off quickly.


  1. Be careful what you click

Like a lot of malware, ransomware is often transmitted through suspicious links and email attachments. It’s important to use caution when opening emails or attachments and clicking links. If you don’t recognize the source, it’s best to err on the side of caution.


  1. Back up your system

Like with antivirus, a lot of people don’t heed the advice to back up their systems. If you don’t back up your system it can be difficult to restore your files if you do fall victim to one of these threats.


What to do if your system is infected?

If your system is infected by ransomware, the most important thing is NOT to pay the ransom. Paying the ransom encourages this type of illegal activity and doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get your files and system back in tact. Instead, try running an antivirus. The best way to do this is to boot your system up in safe mode and run the antivirus scan from there. An even easier route is to use a FixMeStick—just follow the instructions in the package. If you manage to clean up the threat but can’t regain access to your files, restore them from your back ups.

As a last resort, take your computer to a professional repair shop. If the type of ransomware you’ve been infected with states that you’ve broken the law in some way, don’t be nervous or embarrassed to take your PC in to be looked at. Professionals in this field have seen this time and time again and understand that it’s malware and not a sign that you’re actually involved in illegal activity.


For further reading on ransomware, check out the following resources:






By Mike Agerbo

May 26, 2015