How to keep your computer safe from hackers, the crypto virus, and ransomware

Protecting your computer from viruses will save you plenty of time and stress. (Credit: Georgy Papantoniou)

Protecting your computer from viruses will save you plenty of time and stress. (Credit: Georgy Papantoniou)

Imagine this. You’re off campus, doing research on Questia on your laptop in a local café. You get an email notification and see you have a message from UPS. The email is related to a customer support issue and has what looks like a PDF attached. You open it. Suddenly, you see a pop-up demanding a ransom to decrypt your computer’s files. Sound scary? It could be – and several news stations have been hit with the virus, called the crypto locker virus, the cryptolocker virus, or just the crypto virus, a type of malware known as ransomware. This is one of the latest versions of scary attacks on computers – so read on to find out how to keep your computer safe from hackers.

Cryptolocker

Beginning in September 2013, computer users began to receive these harmless looking PDFs, usually in emails supposedly from reputable companies like FedEx, UPS, or DHS. Once the file – an executable file with “pdf” as part of its filename rather than as a proper extension – has been opened, the virus encrypts the files on the computer, making it impossible to access any of your data (and the latest version of your research paper – or those photos from that Halloween bash you attended). The pop up demanding ransom starts a countdown of how long you have to send between $100 and $300 – or sometimes as high as $700 – to get your computer decrypted. Some users have paid the ransom, and while they’ve been able to recover most of their data in a 3 to 4 hour period after payment, not all of it has been restored.

Some incarnations have featured a file that looks like a .jpg or a file from Microsoft Office, rather than a PDF. And thus far, though there are work-arounds to prevent too much damage from striking a computer (much of it provided at the tech support site BleepingComputer by Lawrence Abrams in a October 14, 2013, post, “CryptoLocker ransomware information guide and FAQ”), no solution has been found to decrypt files without paying the ransom.

Don’t want to be out 300 bucks? “If you get an email from somebody you do not know, especially if it’s got attachments, don’t open anything with it, just delete the email,” advised IT specialist Troy Viers on October 23, 2013, for the ABC27 website, in the post,“Warning: Crypto locker computer virus going around.” Another way to minimize damage is to make sure your files are backed up.

How to keep your computer safe from hackers

Cryptolocker is only the most recent malicious threat to hit news sources. Hackers involved in identity theft, viruses, and malware have been problems as long as there have been personal PCs. If you’re not a tech wiz, how can you protect your computer? Leo Notenboom, author of website Ask Leo!, posted an updated version of his “Internet safety: 8 steps to keeping your computer safe on the internet” in August 2013. As Notenboom wrote, “The very concept of “internet safety” is almost an oxymoron these days. It seems like not a day goes by that we don’t hear about some new kind of threat aimed at wreaking havoc across machines connected to the Internet.”

Here are Notenboom’s 8 tips, and a few others you might want to use:

  • Use a firewall.
  • Scan for viruses.
  • Scan for spyware.
  • Keep your computer up to date (whether that’s by using Windows Update or through another OS).
  • Educate yourself so you can avoid scams and phishing.
  • Secure your network.
  • Keep your physical computer safe – know who has access to your computer and be sure you can trust them (or encrypt your data on your own).
  • Back up everything.
  • Set the security settings on your browser to at least medium, if not high. (Check the “tool” or “options” menus for these settings.)
  • Create good passwords and keep them secret. Change them often, and don’t use the same password for everything.
  • Be careful sharing files. Know who you’re sharing with and what they do to protect their own computers.
  • Shop at reputable online sites, and consider paying with an online service like Paypal or Google Wallet to avoid giving out your credit card information.
  • Say “no” to friend requests on social media unless you really know a person.
  • Be careful what you tweet – as in, don’t give away personal information without thinking it through first.
  • Turn off your computer if you’re not using it.

If you do become a victim of fraud, don’t assume that your bank or credit card company will cover you. The first time, they likely will, but if it happens to you again, those charges may become your responsibility.

Have you been a victim of identity theft, phishing, or the cryptolocker virus? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

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