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by Phil Ball

Q. What is ransomware? A friend says he heard it was a very serious problem.

A. A PC owner's worst nightmare is to turn on the computer one morning and find a screen that says all your files are encrypted and you have to pay a fee to get them released. Your computer has been hijacked by a new threat called ransomware. The problem is that your antivirus and anti-malware programs probably won't be able to prevent this because ransomware seems to be especially adept at evading them since it uses standard encryption methods.

They don't destroy your data but simply lock it up until you pay the ransom. You're stuck unless you pay the fee and even if you pay the fee, the bad guys have no incentive to give you a release key. They have your money and your credit card information. You may be out the money and still have your files encrypted and unusable. Don't bother trying to buy your way out of this bad situation; it probably won't do you any good.

The best way to avoid this situation is a multi-layered approach because there's no single solution for all malware threats. The best remedy is to have a tested and secured backup to restore everything from after the situation happens. Use an external hard drive for backups and be sure to keep it unplugged from your PC when not in use so the backup doesn't become infected.

Prevent the problem in the first place by make sure that your antivirus has strong email-attachment filtering and have a strong firewall. Above all, be aware of the techniques used by attackers. Don't open attachments from unknown or unexpected sources. Don't assume that any Web browser is immune to exploits and make sure that Flash, Java, and Silverlight are up to date. Keep in mind that malicious Web sites might piggyback onto news links.

Use only one device to do online banking or purchasing and minimize internet browsing with that device. Do your casual browsing on another device such as a tablet which does not contain your sensitive info. The attackers are getting smarter; it's important that we stay one step ahead of them.

Published: Courier 5/23/15 - Page 12A