There’s a scary threat sweeping the computing world known as ransomware. Ransomware is a type of harmful software that makes your data unreadable unless you pay the creator money to make it readable again. And, unlike the threats of yesteryear (i.e. viruses, Trojans, rootkits, etc.), it is extremely unlikely that any antivirus software can help you recover your data because it is encrypted in such a way that even a supercomputer can’t easily descramble it. Even worse, most users don’t do anything wrong to get infected. Clever hackers have figured out how to infect machines by infecting perfectly reputable websites with malware that installs the ransomware just from visiting.
When users are infected with ransomware, they are normally greeted with a sort of virtual ransom note that explains how much it will cost to get their data back, how long they have to pay up, and where to send the money. If you don’t pay, the bad guys delete the key and your data is lost forever because the key is nearly impossible to guess. If you’re wondering why law enforcement can’t just trace the accounts where the ransom money gets deposited, it’s because payment must be made in Bitcoin, which is an odd currency born on the Internet that gets traded and exchanged for actual monies on some of the darkest corners of the Internet. This ensures there is no paper trail to follow. Most ransomware makers will decrypt your files if you pay as instructed, but there’s absolutely no guarantee your infector will follow through.
The only thing you can do to protect yourself is back up your important files often onto something that can’t be changed by ransomware if it finds its way onto your computer. Flash drives are great because you can make the backup and disconnect it from the machine. Even better is the old-school method of burning your important files to a CD or DVD because the ransomware can’t change the data because optical discs are read-only once burned. Hopefully, the antivirus makers will figure out how to neutralize ransomware, but for now, backup often or literally pay for it later.