In other words, how do you avoid ransomware?
Let’s look at ransomware – software that holds your computer hostage until you pay up – and how best to protect yourself.
Spoiler alert: you already know the answer.
What is ransomware?
First, ransomware is nothing new. It’s received a lot of press lately, but the technique has been around for a while.
Ransomware is simply malware that encrypts some large number of files on your machine, and then holds it hostage until you pay some exorbitant fee (hence ransomware) to regain access. Recent variants use good encryption, so once your machine has fallen victim, the outlook can be pretty bleak.
But note the word I used: malware.
Please understand this: ransomware is just malware. It’s nothing more than spyware or a virus or whatever you want to call it. It’s just another thing hackers can do once they gain access to your computer.
Don’t get me wrong – ransomware sets itself apart because it’s very destructive malware, but it’s still just malware.
That should give you a huge clue on how to avoid it.
How to avoid ransomware
You avoid ransomware exactly the same way you avoid all viruses and malware.
- You should have a firewall. A router is probably good enough, although adding a software firewall is fine if you’re particularly concerned.
- Run up-to-date anti-malware tools. I happen to recommend Windows Defender (formerly known as Microsoft Security Essentials), but there are many, many others. Make sure that they are running and up-to-date.
- Keep your system and software up-to-date. Yes, this means letting Windows automatically update itself, as well as any applications that have self-updating capabilities.
- Use common sense: don’t download random things from the internet, and don’t open attachments you aren’t completely certain are valid and correct.
In short, do all the things you should already be doing to keep yourself safe on the internet.
Ransomware happens to be just one kind of threat – yes, a particularly nasty one – but one from which you protect yourself in the exact same way you protect yourself from all malware.
Perhaps even more important: back up
Having a good and recent backup1 can save you almost immediately.
If you find your machine has been encrypted by ransomware on Tuesday, restoring to a backup you took on Monday could make it almost a non-event. Aside from any work performed since the Monday backup, you’d have your machine back and running again in no time, without having to pay any ransom.
There is almost nothing a good backup can’t save you from. This is another case where even something as scary as ransomware doesn’t necessarily need to get in your way.
CryptoPrevent is a popular tool mentioned by many to avoid ransomware. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really avoid it.
Once installed, it prevents specific actions many variants of ransomware are known to use. In rare cases, these same types of actions might be required by legitimate applications, but as I said, it’s rare.
If installing CryptoPrevent helps you feel safer, and doesn’t interfere with something else you need, by all means, feel free to install it. It’ll protect you from a lot, including, apparently, even some non-ransomware forms of malware. Naturally, like any anti-malware solution, it can’t prevent everything, but it has a good reputation and some fervent supporters.
My concern with CryptoPrevent is that it focuses exclusively on preventing the malware’s malicious behavior, but only after the malware has infected your machine. In other words, if CryptoPrevent actually helped, it’s because malware was somehow allowed on your machine.
I’ll say it again: malware was allowed on your machine.
That’s the problem that I feel is much more important to focus on. That’s what I believe is most important to prioritize, and I don’t want CryptoPrevent – or any other tool – to give you a false sense of security that leads to your letting your guard down.
Should I pay the ransom?
Paying them just encourages them to keep doing this. Sadly enough, enough people do pay that it’s apparently turning into quite a lucrative endeavor. Don’t be one of those people.
Stay safe, back up, and never negotiate with hostage takers – even when it’s your data they take.