Recently I got a phone call from a friend who told me her PC had popped up a big bold warning message that told her that a virus had been detected on her computer. She couldn't get the message to clear off of her PC—the computer seemed to be frozen. The message said that she could pay $39 to load software that would completely remove the virus that had been detected. She asked me, “Should I buy this software?”
I could barely tell her “No! Don’t do it!” fast enough. I told her that the “software” that was putting up the message telling her she has a virus is actually a form of malware called ransomware. If she paid the money to get the virus removed from her PC, she’d actually be paying a ransom to a digital extortionist. What’s more, she might be doing even more harm to her computer by paying the money.
Her next obvious question was, “What do I do about this message? It won’t go away!” Since she is a computer novice, I told her to hire a professional IT service to remove the ransomware and clean up her machine.
According to security experts at Symantec, instances of ransomware are on the rise. This type of malware was first observed in Eastern Europe and Russia in 2009 and it has since spread around the world and has taken many forms. Ransomware is defined as malicious software that holds the computer hostage in some way until the user pays a ransom. Even if the money is paid, there’s no guarantee the PC will be returned to its normal state.
The primary objective of this software is to make money for the perpetrator. Payment is usually requested through an online anonymous payment method or by texting a premium rate phone number. Both payments methods are difficult to trace to determine who is getting the money. Symantec estimates that more than $5 million was paid to ransomware attackers last year, and the company concedes that amount is probably vastly underestimated.
What does ransomware look like?
Unlike other forms of malware that attempt to stay undetected, ransomware gets right in your face with scary warnings and messages. Here are just a few examples of what users have encountered:
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