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What is Ransomware and How Are You Vulnerable Right Now?

What is ransomware and why should you care about it? It’s the latest computer threat and you’re probably already at risk.

Screen shot of a computer infected with Ransomware.
What does ransomware look like? Here's a screen shot of a computer infected with Ransomware. (Townsquare Media NJ)

Ransomware is malicious software installed onto a victim’s computer without the victim’s consent or knowledge that gives criminals the ability to lock a computer remotely. The criminal will then demand payment in an attempt to extort money from the victim.

“Ransomware is different than an ordinary internet scam,” explains Tim Ryan, Supervisor for FBI Cyber Investigations in Newark.

The bad news? Ransomware infections are reportedly on the rise and your computer is probably already vulnerable.

How does ransomware work?

Ransomware criminals target vulnerable computers, invading them then copying and encrypting the computer’s files and deleting the originals. Eventually the criminal is able to lock up your computer system remotely. Next, the victim is presented with a pop-up message demanding money in exchange for access back into the system. 

While the messages vary, the most common appears in the form of an alarming pop-up saying that the victim is under investigation for child porn, or in some cases, it’s just an actual ransom demand.

If the victim pays the criminal, the criminal provides a ten-digit password that grants the victim access to the computer system, however, at that point the computer has already been breached and the system compromised.  Also there’s no guarantee that the criminal will provide the password following payment.

What do you do after a ransomware attack?

If your computer system is hit with ransomware you should take steps immediately to protect against any unauthorized banking transactions if you’ve used the computer for online banking.

Your password protected accounts, email accounts, saved passwords should all be considered compromised once a machine has been infected.

“Any compromise of a computer system means the entire computer should be deemed compromised,” Ryan says. It’s not unusual for people who have one infection to have multiple infections on their computer, he says.

Ryan recommends contacting a computer security expert to fix the infected machine and he urges victims to contact the FBI in Newark to file a complaint by calling (973) 792-3000.

How to protect yourself against ransomware

Ransomware works by infecting vulnerable computers and anyone can be at risk. Here are some ways to reduce your computer’s risk factors.

  • Use a firewall
  • Use a home router
  • Make sure you’ve enabled automatic updates on your computer system at home
  • Download free Microsoft Security Essentials Tool Kit
  • Don’t open any spam email messages or click on suspicious links
  • Keep your antivirus software updated
  • Don’t use administrative rights when browsing the internet
  • Use a “sandbox” browser like the latest version of Internet Explorer or Chrome

Where to file ransomware complaints:

You can use this online form to file a ransomware complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center  or contact the FBI in Newark to file a complaint by calling (973) 792-3000.

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