A relatively new string of viruses called “Ransomware” have been sweeping the internet in the last few years infecting everything from individual smartphones to entire computer networks. Instead of trying to delete data or install other malware like password loggers, a Ransomware virus instead searches your computer for important files, like business documents or save game files, then encrypts them with a very complex password that only the hackers know. The only way for a user to get their files back is to send a large sum of money, usually in the form of Bitcoin computer currency, to a specified address in return for that password.

In some ways, these newer Ransomware viruses are much more dangerous than viruses that just delete files. If all your files are deleted, a data recovery company can still usually use advanced software to restore them. But, when files are encrypted, there is simply no way to restore them short of paying the ransom and hoping that the hackers stay true to their word. The threat of Ransomware is, unfortunately, one that cannot be ignored. Already, there have been some high profile cases of major businesses losing access to all their important files.

The worst case we’ve heard of so far is of Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital which had its entire computer network brought down for more than a week by Ransomware. Everything from their emergency rooms, to their CAT Scanners, to their doctors offices were affected. Ultimately, they had to pay some $17,000 to the hackers to get their essential files back. On a local level, we’ve seen some sporadic cases of Ransomware here in the Tyler Texas area. Nothing as catastrophic as losing an entire network yet, thankfully, but we have seen businesses lose access to important files on individual computers.

There are some things you can do to protect yourself from Ransomware:

  1. Use backup software to create multiple backups of your important data and then keep at least one of those backups completely disconnected from your computers. This second part is important since the more advanced forms of Ransomware search for sensitive files beyond just those on the host computer.
  2. Be extra cautious about opening Microsoft Word or Excel documents from unknown sources. One recent virus called Locky spreads by email messages claiming to have an important invoice that a company needs to open.
  3. If you do open a Word or Excel document and it asks you to enable Macros do not do so. Macros are little programs embedded in Microsoft Office files. They can be used to do helpful things, but more often than not they are used by virus writers to provide their damaging programs a way into your computer.
  4. Partner with a technology company like ETV Software to help you set up and maintain antivirus and backup solutions. Recovering files after a Ransomware attack can be difficult, if not impossible, but with proper defenses and backups, you can minimize the downtime and damage an attack can cause you or your business.

Ransomware is just the latest form of viruses shifting from causing news to making money. It’s a worrying trend that is only going to get worse over time.