What is Ransomware and How Does it Work

The Digital Age has afforded us many modern-day luxuries.

We can now order our groceries with the swipe of a screen, and they show up on our doorsteps hours later. Items that once took weeks to ship across the country now take two days or less. We can pick up a phone and FaceTime our relatives halfway around the world, and jobs are more remote and flexible than ever before.

While all of this might be true, our interconnectedness has also made us increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks, including ransomware. What is ransomware and how does it work? Today, we’re taking a closer look and sharing all of the details you need to protect yourself and your data.

What Is Ransomware?

If it sounds like a lucrative industry

There are different forms of ransomware that exist, and each one can attack your device in a different way. Yet, at the core, all of these malicious software programs have one, central aim.

They are designed to infect your computer and restrict your access to it. To unlock it, you are required to pay a ransom.

While it might seem that these kinds of attacks are a sign of our times, the reality is that ransomware has been around for years. In fact, analysts have observed ransomware variants for years now, and most of the attacks begin the same way. An alert pops up on your screen, informing you that your computer has been hacked, your systems have been locked, or your files have been encrypted.

Naturally, you start to panic and wonder what your next steps should be. Then, as if to answer your question, the next prompt informs you that you can easily unlock your device and restore your access — after you meet their monetary demands. Typically, the ransom is between $200 and $400, and hackers request it in digital currency, such as Bitcoin.

If it sounds like a lucrative industry, that’s because it is. Research shows that ransomware is worth an estimated $14 billion, and victims were required to pay nearly $600 million in the first half of 2021 alone.

How Does It Work and Why Is It Effective?

How Does It Work and Why Is It Effective

As soon as ransomware infects your device, a message will pop up on your screen telling you what has happened. It may ask you to “click here” to resolve the issue or pay a fine to unlock your device. Reading this, you might think that you could outsmart such ploys and that you’d never fall victim to such deceitful demands.

Yet, this type of cyberattack is so effective because it preys on an individual’s deepest-held fears. Data privacy and security have been chief concerns since the onset of the internet, and attacks like these are why.

Ransomware is intentionally threatening in nature, and the messages are sneakily crafted to instill panic in you. You may also worry that by failing to meet the requirements, you could do even more damage. To avoid this vicious cycle, many victims will give into the demands.

Yet, here’s the catch: Once you pay the ransom, you still aren’t guaranteed to get your data back, decrypt your files, or unlock your device. Instead, all you can be sure about is that the cybercriminals now have your money, as well as your personal financial information.

Ways that Ransomware Can Infiltrate Your System

Naturally, you don’t want a cybercriminal coming anywhere near your device, let alone the data you store within it.

That said, how can you keep your systems safe? It all starts with knowing how ransomware can infect your system in the first place. Let’s take a look at the most commonly used approaches.

Email Phishing

The easiest and most effective way is to closely monitor your inbox. Hackers commonly spread ransomware through phishing emails, which are meant to steal your money or identity (or both) by asking you to reveal personal information.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) shares some best practices that can help you recognize and avoid phishing scams, but the top tip is to avoid opening any type of attachment from an email address you do not trust and recognize.

Drive-By Downloading

It’s also a good idea to browse the web carefully.

Another way that ransomware can spread to your computer is through a process known as drive-by downloading. In short, this happens when you visit a website without knowing that it’s infected with a ransomware virus. As soon as you click onto the site, the software downloads and installs on your computer, often without your knowledge.

Social Media: Crypto Ransomware

Social Media Crypto Ransomware

While emails and downloads have been common ransomware routes since its inception, there’s another way that cybercriminals are weasling their way onto your screens and into your servers. Crypto ransomware is relatively new, but it can still have devastating effects.

This is a type of malware variant that encrypts your files. It spreads through methods similar to those described above but more recently, it’s been known to travel through social media. Online instant messaging platforms are especially vulnerable to attack.

Wondering how to stay safe? Take the time to thoroughly vet friends and followers before adding them to your social media network. If you don’t recognize the username or profile, play it safe and stay away.

Protecting Your Device From a Ransomware Attack

Now that you know a little more about how ransomware works, you’re likely wondering how you can keep your personal computers and devices as safe as possible.

Here are a few of the smartest methods to deploy.

Create a Data Backup and Recovery Plan

If you store sensitive or confidential data on your machines, make sure you’re backing those files up regularly. This way, if a loss does occur, the impact won’t be as widespread.

To optimize protection, don’t rely on network-connected backups alone. You should keep your most valuable backups separate from your network to keep them as secure as possible.

Install Security Patches

You know those security alerts that show up on your dashboard every so often? Don’t ignore them. Security patches and updates are designed to keep your applications safe and prevent cyber attacks, including ransomware.

Skipping this step could make your system susceptible, and increase the number of entry points that hackers can access. Take the time to install them and you’ll be glad you did.

Invest in Antivirus Software

In the same vein, antivirus software is one step you can’t afford to skip. Download it as soon as you get your device, and keep it up-to-date. When you download any new software onto your system, scan it for viruses first.

Stay Diligent on the Web

It may go without saying, but don’t click on any links or open any emails that look spammy. While this step is easy to do, it’s getting harder as cybercriminals grow more sophisticated.

Today, emails with ransomware are much less gimmicky and can be very difficult to distinguish from standard correspondence. The best way to stay safe is to avoid opening anything from any person or organization you don’t personally know.

Stay Proactive and Prevent Ransomware Attacks

The always-on nature of the internet can be a double-edged sword. While it’s afforded us much progress in the field of technology, it’s also made us more vulnerable than ever. Ransomware is one of the downsides of this movement.

Now that you know what this type of cyberattack entails and how to prevent it, you’re one step closer to safeguarding yourself and your devices from an invasion. Keep diligent, remain proactive, and be on your guard. Tech can be incredibly innovative, but it can also have a dark side. With these tips, you can do your part to stay safe.

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