"Ransomware" – Your Computer Held Hostage

Malware is an all-encompassing term for software that does something unrequested to your computer. Some can be perfectly innocuous, like a website that remembers what items you have previously looked at, so it can better tailor its advertising to you; others can be a virus that erases part of your data. Most of the “safe” malware come from websites in the form of “cookies” which can store information about your computer, and your internet habits. E-commerce websites are the primary suppliers of this technology and use it in the hopes to get you to make another purchase. Internet search engines also use this to help get users to the websites they are looking for in a faster and more thorough manner.

Our primary concern, as computer specialist, is the people that use this technology to harm your computer. Cookies have gotten a bad rep from the press but with the recent increase in malware, everyone needs to become more vigilant. The most recent type of malware to become a problem is “Ransomware”, which does exactly what it sounds like. Ransomware holds your computer hostage until you pay the creators a certain amount of money (anywhere from $49.99 to $89.99 is average) to have it removed from your computer (though it is rarely removed and usually just lays dormant for a few months until it starts up again with the pop-ups and wants more money). It will normally create pop-ups on your desktop stating that you have an untold number of problems with your computer and you need to click “Ok” to fix it. They can also block your internet access, turn off or completely remove your actual antivirus, and send itself to all of your contacts through your email. Normally, by the time it reaches this state, it’s already infected your computer and the problems it speaks of are not real. Many of the ransomware programs will install files into windows for it to find and claim are viruses, Trojans, or worms. The FBI estimates that ransomware victims sent over $150 million to criminals last year. Paying the criminal may stop the initial pop-ups and blocked websites, but then your credit card information is in the hands of a criminal who obviously has no good intentions.

The creators of ransomware do everything they can to make their software look legitimate. Many go so far as to attempt to recreate Windows Security Center exactly in hopes to convince the average computer user that it is real antivirus software to get your credit card information. 25% of the ransomware seen in the second half of 2009 is based off a program called Total Security. As the true antivirus/antimalware manufactures find ways to block and remove one version, the creators are already looking at way to modify their software to get past the next road block.

Given the prevalence and danger of this ransonware, you are probably asking “What can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen to me?” Here are a couple of steps you can follow that will help to avoid getting any type of malware on your computer.

  1. Have an up to date and working antivirus program. Any antivirus that came preinstalled on your computer will normally have a yearly subscription fee associated with it. The first year fee may have been included in the price of your computer so many people don’t notice when it expires. To check and see if your antivirus is working, just open the program from either the “All Programs” section of your start bar or you can double-click on the antivirus icon in the lower right hand corner of your taskbar. If you can’t find an antivirus in either location, then you probably do not have a current and updated antivirus. The most common antivirus programs that come preinstalled on computers are Norton, McAfee, and Trend-Micro PC Chillin. If your antivirus has expired, we use and recommend AVG antivirus from Grisoft. There is a free version for home users (and a less expensive version for businesses when compared with any other antivirus) and does a great job keeping your system clean. Microsoft has also release Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) which is just an antispyware program but does a very good job. That is also available free from Microsoft’s website. We will be happy to guide you through downloading and installing AVG and/or MSE onto your computer. Having a working antivirus is a great start but some of the malware may still get through.
  2. If you get a pop-up on your computer that you were not expecting, do not click either “Ok” or “Cancel”. Many of the malware creators have rewritten their code so that even if you click “Cancel”, it will still install itself on your computer. The safest thing is to click on the red X in the upper right hand corner of the pop-up. This is not a guarantee because sometimes it is even too late once the first pop-up is on your computer.
  3. Never click on a link sent to you in an email; even if it is from someone you know. If you are expecting a friend to send you a link to a specific item, that link should be okay, but if you get an unexpected email from a friend that says “Hey! Come check out this funny video!”, do not click on it. The link itself may say www.youtube.com or something similar but the programmers can make those links look like anything they want and when you click, it will take you to wherever it’s been programmed to.
  4. If you think your computer has some spyware, use it as little as possible until you get it repaired and DO NOT do any online banking or shopping!! Many of these criminals will use your credit cards as quickly as possible before you even realize they have it so don’t give them the opportunity.
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The internet can be a great place to get information, go shopping, or chat with long lost friends but there are criminals out there who will take advantage of every situation. We need to stay alert and careful when going to new websites, doing Google searches, or even checking our email. The internet is just like walking down any street in any town; you need to make sure you look both ways before you cross. And remember to never, ever just click “Ok” when you see a pop-up.