Are Hackers Holding Your PC for Ransom?

Greg Wilson, Head of Information Security
September 17, 2018

Individuals who seek to take advantage of others through the use of cyber-attacks often do so by means of ransomware, a type of malware that inhibits users from being able to access their data or use their computers unless they pay ransoms.

The requested ransom amount and method may vary: it usually is requested in bitcoin (an electronic currency), but it could even come in the form of gift cards rather than money. However, paying the ransom doesn’t always guarantee that users will regain access to their systems or files that are being held hostage.

Law enforcement has seen an increase in ransomware attacks since 2015, including attacks on hospitals, school districts, state and local governments, law enforcement agencies, small businesses and large businesses. According to the FBI, there were more than 2,400 complaints from businesses and others for a combined total loss of more than $24 million because of ransomware attacks in 2016 alone.1

The threat of a ransomware attack becomes more prevalent when clicking on various pop-ups or visiting unfamiliar websites. These pop-ups and sites can often be infected but lure you and trick you into clicking on them, leading you to believe you’re purchasing something helpful, such as anti-virus software. It’s important to be mindful and take caution when accessing sites you frequent often, and make sure you are always taking proactive steps to ensure safety for you, your firm and all of your clients.

Have an effective anti-virus/anti-malware system installed.
Using a reputable anti-virus, anti-malware and enabling your firewall, in addition to keeping your software up to date, will help protect your computer from potential ransomware attacks.

Back up your system frequently.
Make sure you have a separate system to store all of your files so that you will still be able to access them in the event that your computer system is compromised. Use different credentials for this backup system in order to avoid another attack.

Limit user access rights.
Only the necessary and appropriate individuals should have access rights to your system. Disable the rights of former employees and those on long-term leave in order to keep limited access for those who require it at the times they require it.

Don’t download software from sites you don’t know or trust.
There are many malicious fake sites out there that prey upon unsuspecting individuals. Avoid these sites, and only download programs from sites with which you are familiar and know to be safe.

Employ encryption at the file level or volume level.
Encrypt your individual files that contain critical, sensitive or confidential data or the volume (e.g., C drive) where the information resides to ensure that if your system is breached, unauthorized data disclosure will not occur.

Disable macros.
Macros can be helpful but are automated scripts that have been used in the past to be conduits for malware. Some are built-in macros and can be dangerous to your system, but you can disable these easily so that you don’t have extra programs running in the background when you don’t need them.

Don’t open attachments in unsolicited emails.
Be very careful when clicking on links contained in emails. Although many email systems have gotten better at filtering out spam, phishing emails are still prevalent and target specific individuals. It’s best not even to open these types of emails, but certainly never click on the links within them.

Enable your pop-up blocker.
Pop-ups are a common tactic cybercriminals use to access your information and trap you into a scam. If a pop-up does happen to appear, immediately close it out, and do not click any of the buttons or links contained in it. Some companies’ network administrators set up pop-up blockers for employees, but if this is not the case, check your settings to ensure you will not have to deal with unwanted ads popping up while you’re working on your computer.

It’s always wise to employ safe practices so that you don’t find yourself a victim to scams and attacks, which could leave you unable to access your own information and system. If a ransomware attack happens to you, it’s important to alert authorities — particularly the local FBI — because this form of cybercrime is a serious threat, and such extortion should not be overlooked.


1 Special Agent Vicki D. Anderson, “Ransomware: Latest Cyber Extortion Tool.” April 26, 2016.