The basic definition of ransomware is as follows: a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid. Much like a biological infection, ransomware infiltrates computers in harmful ways. Unlike a typical computer virus or other forms of malware, however, ransomware encrypts files on a victim’s computer. Encryption blocks access to any of the infected files, and they may only be accessed once a monetary payment is made. Ransomware started in the early 2000s and much like every other piece of technology, it has gotten more sophisticated.

The scam started when advertisements made claims of corrupt or unused files harming one’s computer. Victims would then use a fake spyware removal tool to “fix” their system after paying somewhere between $30–$90 dollars. This method eventually phased out and a new more complex method of fake antivirus programs took place. The process worked in much the same way as the fake spyware tool, users would pay money to “fix” any issues the antivirus ransomware displayed.

According to Bitdefender, a cybersecurity company, there are two main methods of ransomware today and both involve encryption. The first form is known as device lockers. This means the ransomware will lock out users from their device until the ransom is paid. A typical message looks as if it comes from the police and accuses the user of online misuse and they must pay immediately or suffer a fine or jail time. Monetary payments in these sorts of instances come in the form of pre-paid cards or online currency known as bitcoins.

The second type of ransomware is known as crypto-ransomware. Far more malicious and harmful than the device locker ransomware, crypto-ransomware attaches itself to user-defined files. These include documents, presentations, photos, etc. An encryption key is then generated for each file, which makes access to these resources unusable and unattainable. Again, the only way for users to access their files is to pay whatever the amount the ransomware displays.

Ransomware has even made its way toward mobile devices. Android phones and iPhones are susceptible to ransomware attacks if they have JavaScript enabled on their phone internet browser. The process of ransomware works much the same way as it does for desktop computers by locking users out of their phone. These harmful software applications can make its way to phones through public WiFi networks or by clicking malicious links. In order to reduce the risk of these types of infections, users are encouraged to use the phone’s built-in passcode system. iPhone users have built-in encryption devices into their phone passcodes to prevent unauthorized access. Android devices offer encryption of the whole device, should the user choose to do so.

There are ways of preventing ransomware, however. The most important step involves having a reputable antivirus program installed on one’s computer. Having updated software reduces the risk of vulnerabilities exposed to ransomware. Backing up one’s information also helps, so that in the event of an infection one still has access to their files. Utilizing an external hard drive or transferring data onto high capacity flash drives provides a smart solution. Finally, avoid any potentially harmful websites and avoid clicking on links from unfamiliar sources. These steps should mitigate the risk of ransomware infiltrating one’s computer system. As technology advances more and more, so will malicious programs. An unfortunate truth, but it certainly pays to be mindful of the fact.

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