With global ransomware attacks, such as WannaCry and not-Petya, making big headlines this year, it seems the unwelcomed scourge of ransomware isn’t going away any time soon. While large-scale attacks like these are most known for their ability to devastate companies and even whole countries, the often under-reported victim is the average home user.
We sat down with Tyler Moffit, senior threat research analyst at Webroot, to talk ransomware in plain terms to help you better understand how to stop modern cybercriminals from hijacking your most valuable data.
Webroot: For starters, how do you describe ransomware? What exactly is being ransomed?
Tyler Moffit: To put it simply, your files are stolen. Basically, any files that you would need on the computer, whether those are pictures, office documents, movies, even save files for video games, will be encrypted with a password that you need to get them back. If you pay the ransom, you get the password (at least, in theory. There’s no guarantee.)
How does the average home user get infected with ransomware?
“Malspam” campaigns are definitely the most popular. You get an email that looks like it’s from the local post office, saying you missed a package and need to open the attachment for tracking. This attachment contains malware that delivers the ransomware, infecting your computer. It is also possible to become infected with ransomware without clicking anything when you visit malicious websites. Advertisements on legitimate websites are the biggest target. Remote desktop protocol (RDP) is another huge attack vector that is gaining traction as well. While controlling desktops remotely is very convenient, it’s important to make sure your passwords are secure.
How is the data ? Is the ransomed data actually taken or transmitted?
When you mistakenly download and execute the ransomware, it encrypts your files with a password, then sends that password securely back to the attacker’s server. You will then receive a ransom demand telling you how to pay to get the password to unlock your files. This is a really efficient way to prevent you from accessing your files without having to send gigabytes of information back to their servers. In very simple terms, the files are scrambled using a complex algorithm so that they are unreadable by any human or computer unless the encryption key is provided.
What types of files do ransomware attacks usually target?
Most ransomware is specifically engineered to go after any type of file that is valuable or useful to people. Around 200 file extensions have been known to be targeted. Essentially, any file that you’ve saved or open regularly would be at risk.
How does the attacker release the encrypted files?
The attacker provides a decryption utility via the webpage where you make the payment. Once you receive the decryption key, all you have to do is input that key into the tool and it will decrypt and release the files allowing you to access them again. Keep in mind, however, that the criminal who encrypted your files is under no obligation to give them back to you. Even if you pay up, you may not get your files back.
Tips for protecting your devices:
- Use reliable antivirus software.
- Keep all your computers up-to-date. Having antivirus on your computer is a great step towards staying safe online; however, it doesn’t stop there. Keeping your Windows PCs and/or Mac operating systems up-to-date is equally important.
- Backup your data. Being proactive with your backup can help save your favorite vacation photos, videos of your kid’s first piano recital, not to mention sensitive information that could cost you thousands by itself.
Remember, being an informed and aware internet user is one of the best defenses against cyberattacks. Stay tuned in to the Webroot blog and follow us on your favorite social media sites to stay in-the-know on all things cybersecurity.