There’s no shortage of scare in the world of technology. Terrors like viruses, worms, and keyloggers lurk at every dark corner. But ransomware is something special altogether.
This new kind of threat does not sneak into your PC like common malware — it bursts in, takes your data hostage, and demands payment if you want to get access to your files. Some heartless cybercriminals even delete the user data after they get the ransom.
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But like all things in life, ransomware requires you to be prepared and vigilant against it.
Luckily, security researchers now have a better understanding of ransomware threats, and even Microsoft is moving into the act of building natural protection in Windows 10 against these programs that encrypt your precious data.
This comprehensive guide to ransomware protection for your PC shows you just how damaging ransomware can be, and what you need to be to prepare against this invading threat.
To refresh your security lingo, below is a list of some of the most common terms and definitions related to ransomware. It also includes including some that explain general computing security that goes with this type of threat on PCs.
0-Day: An exploit that has not yet been disclosed or patched by a software vendor.
Bitcoin: A form of digital currency, often used by victims to pay ransomware cybercriminals.
Cryptor: A tool that conceals malware, making it harder for security software to detect or analyze it.
Disinfect: The process of cleaning and removing unwanted software from a computer.
Drive-by download: The automatic or accidental download of malware from the Internet.
Encryption: A way of making the readable information unreadable.
Firewall: Software that monitors and controls the flow of information on networks.
Malware: Short for malicious software.
Payload: The actions taken by a piece of malware once it infects your computer.
Ransomware: A type of malware that stops you from using your PC and encrypts your files and data.
Resident: Malware that continuously runs on your device.
Signature: A set of characteristics used to identify a piece of malware.
Spam: Bulk unwanted email, often used to spread malicious software.
As the Petya outbreak has demonstrated, ransomware is getting smarter. And there’s no real way to remove advanced threats like these. The best researchers have been able to do come up with measures to immunize your PC, while security companies work to block it.
Petya is the second major ransomware attack this year, which followed months after WannaCry, another ransomware that left significant destruction in its wake.
These situations go to show that just as security companies are getting smarter at detecting and blocking regular malware, so are ransomware makers, who continue to add damaging new features into their solutions, making them stealthier and more robust with each new iteration.
Ransomware attacks rose from 3.8 million in 2015 to 638 million in 2016 — a momentous increase of over 167 times within a year! And things are not slowing down, quite the contrary, as the technology world scurries to find solutions against these constantly evolving threats.
Intel has identified over 400 families of ransomware in the wild, most of them targeting Windows, but many also going for other PC platforms like macOS and Linux. They’re also actively developed for mobile, Android in particular.
CryptoLocker is by far the most prevalent one around. It imprisons your documents via time-locked encryption. But ransomware comes in a much wider variety of forms: even one that takes over webcams and threatens to post embarrassing footage of the victims.
How Ransomware Strikes?
Ransomware can infect your PC in some ways, but the most common ones are via a new app or software program that you install, a Flash-based gaming website, an accidental click on a bad ad, and even the insertion of a compromised USB or external hard drive in some cases.
How do you know if you have ransomware?
You’ll just know.
If you’re already aware of the implications of ransomware, and the chances are that you do, be prepared for that sinking feeling of having to pay hundreds of dollars to avoid losing your digital life. That is if you have not taken most of the steps that experts recommend.
What are they? Read on to find out.
How to Protect your PC from Ransomware?
A few common-sense habits can help you mitigate your exposure to malware. The most notable of the bunch is not to go clicking suspicious-looking links online, as the Internet is the primary avenue used by cybercriminals to spread their digital thievery.
A lot of work remains to be done to counter this type of damaging threat to computer safety.
But the most reliable protection against ransomware is regularly backing up all your sensitive data and keeping it in a safe place. Make weekly or monthly backups a habit. The same goes for not clicking or visiting shady websites that may house these ransomware threats — most of the time willingly, at others, unwillingly.
That said, here is a selection of tips to help protect your PC from ransomware:
- Keep your PC up to date via Windows Update. Major ransomware types primarily target older and outdated versions of the operating system.
- Make sure that Adobe Flash is turned off. Ideally, you should be using a web browser that turns it off by default, like Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge.
- Turn off Office macros too, if enabled.
- Ensure that you have an active firewall running, along with a capable antimalware solution. Windows Firewall and Windows Defender are simply baseline defense against advanced threats like these, barely adequate. We recommend a good, third-party antimalware solution like MalwareFox when you are working with critical data.
- Stay away from the wrong corners of the Internet. Sneaky and suspicious websites are one thing, but even legitimate sites can inject malware onto your device via a bad advertisement. The risks increase the more you surf where you should not be.
- Don’t open questionable links, either on a web page, or those sent via email. Especially in an email. Research has shown that users that forwarded links to their friends and family helped spread them.
- Don’t rely on an antimalware solution to save you. That’s because even as researchers continue to make notable progress on defense against ransomware, you can count on their protection.
The good thing is that there is a large variety of security solutions now available that offer dedicated ransomware protection. Typically, however, vendors reserve antimalware protection for their paid commercial programs that you have to buy or
There are a couple of excellent free solutions available, too.
They advertise Malwarebytes as being capable of fighting malware, and it usually puts up a good fight. RansomFree also offers anti-ransomware protection, as do solutions like Bitdefender Anti-Ransomware Tool, even if it only protects you from just four common variants of ransomware.
Kaspersky has also developed a robust solution, which it claims can block the latest ransomware threats, including Petya. Its System Watcher component only rolls back the changes that the ransomware makes on your computer.
If you are looking for the best protection from all kinds of malware then go for MalwareFox. This antimalware software works effectively on all kinds of malware including adware, browser hijacker, ransomware, spyware, keyloggers, etc. You can get this software for 15 days fully functional trial and then after you can renew it with minimal charge.
What to do if you’re infected?
First order of business? Don’t panic. Your first move should be to assess the situation, and scope of the problem by going through your directories and finding out which files are infected. You may also want to contact the authorities, including the police — more so if ransomware locks your vital business data.
The next step is identification and removal.
But before we get to that, a fascinating little fact. Some variety of ransomware uses fake encryption by merely changing the file names without actually encrypting them. If you see some odd extension names on your documents, try changing them back!
Anyway, getting back to more pressing matters. If you have a paid antimalware solution, scan your hard drive, and see whether it can help. Also, visit the help forums of your security vendor, and contact their tech support.
A bunch of helpful resources is available online over at Crypto Sherriff, which is a collection of free removal tools and uninstallers from Intel, Interpol, and Kaspersky Lab that help you identify and eradicate ransomware from your system.
Back it all up
The best, albeit not perfect, defense against ransomware is a backup. Since these types of threats lock up files that are most precious to you, there is no reason to leave them vulnerable. Backing them up, both online and offline is an excellent strategy.
Services like Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, OneDrive, and Mega provide free storage space online that you can take advantage of to store your data. Their paid plans are also worth considering. Just be sure to act quickly in case of an attack, lest your cloud service backup infected files!
The best way to go about this is to invest in an external drive, performing incremental backups often, and then detaching that drive to store that copy of data in safe isolation.
That said, backup is not foolproof. And adding to that complexity is the fact that you may need to research how to back up your other type of data that does not fit the definition of documents. Stuff like games, custom applications and utilities, and their settings will require some fiddling.
Microsoft Windows to the Rescue?
Previously Microsoft tools were disappointing when it comes to Malware Removal but now no one is taking ransomware more seriously than Microsoft, in how it is building constitutional ransomware protection into Windows 10. The operating system is already the most secure solution the Redmond-based software company has put out. And it’s about to get a whole lot better.
The latest Microsoft Defender actually comes with ransomware protection built-in. Controlled folder access, is the name of this new game, which Microsoft says protects your files and folders from unauthorized changes by unfriendly applications.
You can enable this feature via Windows security settings. Whenever suspicious programs try to tinker with your data, the defender will block it, and you will get a notification about the attempt.
Windows Defender protects folders like Desktop, Documents, Pictures, and Movies by default, and you can not remove these, but you can manually protect other folders too. There will also be options to whitelist individual apps and programs to allow access to these controlled folders.
Windows is the most affected platform, by far, when it comes to ransomware. And it is good to see Microsoft finally being proactive in protection.
To Pay or not to Pay?
This question is worth a million-dollar: When you are under attack by ransomware, should you pay up or risk losing everything? The answer to this lies in how much your data is worth and how quickly you need access to it.
Bitcoins and other types of cryptocurrencies are almost always the preferred choices of payment for ransomware authors. And while you may prefer to wait and see whether security researchers develop a solution for your particular type of ransomware, things get complicated when you have a time-lock.
Some 42% of small businesses hit by ransomware paid up.
And this is what keeps these cybercriminals going.
But the worst part of this whole ordeal is that there is no guarantee that you will get access to your data back. A quarter of the companies surveyed in recent research by Datto revealed that they did not. And the same is true for individuals and their data.
Ultimately, though, the only thing that matters in ransomware protection is the steps you take to counter its effects. It includes prevention by installing antimalware solutions and regularly backing up your data, ideally on a weekly basis.
Because, really, in this case, all you may need to do when ransomware strike, is to reset your PC, reinstall all your applications and restore your data from your backup — You can accomplish all the steps in a few hours in the evening!
YES, the latest Windows 10 version has included Ransomware Protection in its security features. To enable it, open the Windows Security app. Select Virus & threat protection. Under Ransomware protection, select Manage ransomware protection. If controlled folder access is turned off, you’ll need to turn it on
Regular backups and using common sense while browsing the internet is the best defense against ransomware attacks. In addition to that, the installation of a robust security program like MalwareFox would be an extra layer of defense against ransomware.
A VPN does not stop ransomware, but technically it will make your device less vulnerable to malicious attacks as it encrypts your IP addresses, data, and traffic while browsing the internet.
Shawn is a WindowsChimp Staff writer, who is a fan of making lists and does the same on this site. He has a Contemporary Writing degree and been in technology niche since last 3 years.