Columns | Northwest Herald

Tech Tips: Ransomware continues to cost consumers

Ransomware remains a major problem for businesses and consumers alike. A form of cyber attack, ransomware holds data hostage until a ransom is paid. Ransomware attacks on businesses often make the headlines, but attacks on consumers aren’t often discussed. Here’s how to prevent ransomware on your home network, and what to do if your computer is infected.

Although ransomware is an IT issue, it has serious real-world repercussions. What if you need to go to the hospital, but the staff don’t have access to your medical records and are reduced to filling out forms by hand? That’s not a hypothetical scenario. It’s happened to numerous hospital systems across the country because of ransomware. As a result, patients have had to delay treatment, and doctors have been unable to schedule critical surgeries.

On an individual level, ransomware can be catastrophic. Imagine sitting down at your screen and facing nothing but a message saying that hackers have commandeered your computer. All of your data is inaccessible. Your computer is locked and can’t be restarted. While you try to figure out what to do, the criminals continue to demand more and more money, threatening to delete your data or sell access to your accounts if you don’t. The stress, the loss of time, the possibility of financial fraud and identity theft – it’s a hassle you want to avoid.

Can’t you just pay the ransom to get your computer and data back? That is the big question, and IT security experts disagree on the answer. Businesses and individuals alike have done so, only to find that the criminals refused to unlock the computers and sold the data anyway. For that reason, the general consensus is that there’s no point in trying to pay the ransom. Your best bet is to prevent ransomware from gaining a foothold.

While a ransomware-infected computer is difficult (if not impossible) to disinfect, basic safety precautions go a long way toward reducing the risks. Keep your computer’s system software and apps updated, and use a strong third-party antivirus program like those available from AVG, Bitdefender, Norton and McAfee.

Ransomware is usually distributed via the standard cyber-criminal tricks like phishing emails and fake tech support phone calls. Be extremely cautious about fake messages in email or on social media. Remember that phishing scams can look incredibly realistic. So can fake tech support pop-ups. Use spam filters to mark messages as junk, and web security extensions like McAfee’s WebAdvisor to block bad sites.

The best way to protect your data from ransomware is to keep an offline backup, for example on a hard drive or other device that can be physically disconnected. Ransomware spreads fast, and any computer connected to a network can be infected. Offline backups are critical for getting back up and running fast after a ransomware attack.

If your computer has been infected by ransomware, shut it down, unplug it from both power and network, and seek the services of an experienced IT professional. You also can report it to the FTC at

• Triona Guidry is a freelance writer and consumer technology specialist offering advice and help for home computer users. For weekly tips and news by email, subscribe to her Simple Tech Tips blog at