CyberHostage – The New Realities

Remember the old Westerns where the bad guys targeted the stagecoach to rob? Remember the famous apocryphal answer to the question of why a bank robber robbed banks? Of course, the answer was “because that’s where they keep the money.” Today, there is a new breed of thieves that know that very well. What is the most important electronic asset that you have today? It is not your computer – if damaged, they can be replaced. It is not software that can be corrupted. That can also be replaced. In fact, it is your data – the documents, pictures, presentations, and videos that you have created and that are irreplaceable.

Imagine seeing this flash up on your screen:

warningThese hoodlums have not displayed silly messages or destroyed your hard drive. Rather, they have encrypted all of your personal files and are now demanding that you pay a ransom within a designated period of time for them to provide you with the key to decrypt the files. Fail to pay the ransom and the key self-destructs leaving the files unusable.

So far, reports of people paying the ransom have indicated that the bandits are at least honoring that obligation for now, but after all, they are thieves and trust seems to be questionable.

Your first reaction may be “OK. I back up my files regularly to an external hard drive, so I am good.” Not so fast. If the hard drive was attached to your computer when the attack occurred, it too could be infected. Removing the virus is easy. Unfortunately, the files remain encrypted and without paying the ransom, are likely lost forever.

There are a variety of ways that you can protect yourself before you are attacked by Cryptolocker or other malware or ransomware programs.

  • Regularly backup your important files. If you can, store your back-ups offline where they cannot be affected in the event of an attack on your active files. Your backups are useless if they are scrambled by CryptoLocker along with the primary copies of the files. If you use an external hard drive, unplug it from your computer while you are actively using your machine so it cannot be affected by “drive-by malware.” Reconnect it when you are finished to enable regularly scheduled back-up sessions.
  • Keep your anti-virus software up to date and run a malware detection tool (like www.malwarebytes.com) on a regular basis. Malware can be harming your computer without you knowing it. Catching and eliminating it early makes good sense!
  • Keep your operating system and software up to date with patches. This reduces the potential for malware to enter unnoticed through security holes. CryptoLocker authors do not use extravagant intrusion techniques because other malware already opened the door.

As with all security, the best way to protect yourself is before you have been attacked. Cryptolocker is likely only the first of the Twenty-First Century version of an old-fashioned hold-up. It cannot infect your computer unless you open the executable file. Be cautious about what you open. Create walls between your active computer files and those that you have backed up. Having your most important documents in another room will not save them if the building burns down. Keep them somewhere else – like in the cloud! Being held a CyberHostage is not fun. Knowing this threat is out there is the first step to not becoming a victim!