Carnegie Mellon University

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June 09, 2021

Defend Against Ransomware

Ransomware is a type of malicious software (malware) that is designed to hold files or computer systems hostage, demanding payment in order to regain access. Ransomware is the fastest growing form of malware and has remained a constant threat to individuals, small businesses, hospitals, school districts, and city governments for some time.  In recent weeks, ransomware cyber-attacks have made the national spotlight; from shutting down gas pipelines and large food suppliers, to hijacking hospitals and city governments. Cybersecurity experts predict that ransomware attacks will continue to become more rampant as the attacks are highly profitable and easy for criminals to exploit.

How Ransomware Works

Ransomware starts by infecting a computer, most often when an infected attachment is opened, a malicious link is clicked on in a phishing email, or a malicious file is downloaded. Once ransomware infects a computer, it encrypts files on the hard drive – possibly even the entire hard drive – or anything else connected to the computer, so that files can no longer be accessed.  The ransomware then informs the victim that the only way to recover the files is to pay the cybercriminal a ransom, typically in the form of an untraceable cryptocurrency. Sometimes, the criminals will threaten to release the files publicly if the ransom is not paid.  If the ransom is paid, the criminals might give the victim access to the files, but there are no guarantees.

Protecting Against Ransomware

Protect your computer and files against a ransomware infection by following the tips below.

  • Update Your Systems and Software: Cyber criminals often infect computers or devices by taking advantage of vulnerabilities in your software. The more current your software is, the fewer known vulnerabilities it has, and the harder it is for cyber criminals to infect them. Therefore, make sure your operating systems, applications, and devices have automatic updating enabled.

  • Enable Antivirus:  Use an up-to-date antivirus software to detect and stop malware. Antivirus vendors are constantly updating their products with new capabilities to detect malware. Learn how to configure antivirus on your devices by visiting the Computing Services Secure Computing webpage.

  • Be Vigilant:  Cyber criminals often trick people into installing ransomware and other forms of malicious software through email phishing attacks. Be aware of email messages that create a strong sense of urgency or seem too good to be true as it could be an attack. Cyber attackers attempt to play on your emotions.  Common sense is often your best defense. Learn how to identify phishing email by visiting the ISO’s Don’t Take the Bait webpage.

  • Back Up Your Files: Since it’s impractical to assume that you’ll always be able to prevent an infection, your best defense against ransomware is by generating backups of data. If you have a backup of your important documents and other files, you have the option of recovering from a backup instead of paying the ransom. Carnegie Mellon offers numerous file storage options which you can use to securely back up your files.