How are you with multiple-choice questions? Well, here’s one for you: You’re working away on your laptop when it stops responding to the keyboard, then the screen fills with a skull-and-crossbones image made of dollar signs. Do you:
- Say “Look, it’s an ad for that new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.”
- Wonder how your computer knew today was International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
- Prepare to be plundered.
If you picked c, you are correct. We would say congratulations, except that you’re about to be plundered. Your computer has been seized by ransomware, software that holds your computer or data hostage until you pay ransom, usually $200-$300, to the attackers.
The skull and crossbones screen is the trademark of Petya, one of the many strains of ransomware running around the Internet. Most work either by locking up your computer interface or by encrypting all the files on your computer so you can’t use them. Then they give you a deadline to pay, usually in cyber-currency such as Bitcoin, to get your computer or files unlocked. (Criminals prefer currency like Bitcoin instead of credit cards or PayPal because it’s harder for law enforcement to trace.) If you don’t pay by the deadline, your work files, photos, music collection, or that tell-all memoir you were writing, all will be locked for good.
The best way to deal with this software scourge is to avoid getting it. Ransomware sneaks onto computers mostly through email attachments and downloads, so:
- Don’t open an attachment from anyone you don’t know.
- Don’t download files from sites you don’t know and trust.
- Don’t click on random ads that pop up on the web.
- Never, ever download pirated music, movies, or other content. (If you hang with pirates, you’re just asking to be plundered.)
All that said, if you’re already facing the skull and crossbones or any other computer ransom demand, it’s too late for prevention. And online pirates are making billions of dollars a year with ransomware, so they’re constantly finding new and better ways to get past your defenses. Just in case the worst happens, be on the lookout for a future blog in which we’ll tell you how to deal with a ransomware attack in progress.