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Ransomware: How to protect yourself at work and at home

There has been a lot in the news about ransomware lately. Recent ransomware attacks have caused high-profile business shutdowns, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s ticketing system, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, and the University of Calgary, just to name a few.

Ransomware is the fastest growing malware threat, targeting users of all types — from the home user to the corporate network. Make sure you know how to protect yourself from it.

What is ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of malicious software (also known as malware) that locks the victim out of their computer or files – often by encrypting them – until a ransom is paid. The ransomware typically displays a message letting the victim know that they have been locked out, along with instructions for how much and how to pay.

Ransomware is often spread through use of stolen credentials, malicious links and harmful attachments in email; however, this is not the only mechanism. Other sources include adware/spyware, and malicious applications or files.

It is important to note that paying the ransom doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll get access to your computer or files back. In fact, a couple of recent high-profile cyber-attacks, dubbed “WannaCry” and “Petya,” posed as ransomware to distract people from the real attack, and people affected by those attacks were unable to get their files back even after paying the ransom. The FBI and law enforcement advise never paying the ransom.

How to protect yourself from ransomware

The following good cybersecurity habits will help to protect you from ransomware, as well as other cyber threats:

  1. Back up critical files, and store the backups in a physically separate location from the originals. This is probably the best protection against ransomware. If your files are backed up, you can get technical assistance to restore everything back to your computer and you won’t lose anything important. Remember to test your backups periodically. Backups are useless if they don’t work!
  2. Always think twice before clicking on links or opening attachments, even if they appear to come from someone you know. Whenever possible, go to web pages by a path you know is legitimate instead of clicking on a link in a message. If an attachment is unexpected, contact the sender by a method you know is legitimate to confirm they sent it. This small extra effort is one of the best ways to keep your devices and information safe.
  3. Keep a clean machine. Keep your devices, apps and browsers patched and up-to-date. Recent attacks have taken advantage of unpatched/out-of-date operating systems.
  4. Protect your passwords and use multi-factor authentication wherever possible. Also use different passwords for work and non-work activities.
  5. If it’s suspicious, report it! This is an important habit in general; if something doesn’t seem right, ask. If you think a device or files you use for work have been infected with ransomware, report it to your supervisor and whomever you report IT security issues to at your location. If this happens to you at home, notify law enforcement.

What to do if you receive a ransomware threat

Most importantly, don’t panic. If you have good backups, you’ll probably be OK with some technical assistance. Report the incident so you can get help.

Learn more

Find out more about ransomware

Learn the eight highly effective habits for maintaining cybersecurity

This article originally appeared on the UCOP IT security blog.

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