Article — Locked Out

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Image source: UK, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image source: UK, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s on your computer? Your manuscripts? Work? Photos? What would you do if you were denied access to those files—if you were locked out by rogue hackers?

If you’re shaking your head because you think nothing on your computer is of value to hackers, consider this: The hackers don’t want your files. They want you to pay for unlocking access to your files. In other words, the value of what’s on your computer is its value to you. Offline, this is known as blackmail. Online, it’s malware called Cryptolocker, and your computer can easily become infected.

For example, say you completed a wire transfer with your bank, or your grandmother sent you a gift. In either case, you might receive an email confirming your activity. In the email is either an attachment or a link for you to use to check the transfer date or the tracking info. Open the attachment or click the link and you’ll see these words: Your Personal Files Are Encrypted.

At that point, your files are locked and you won’t be able to unlock them without a “key”, or digital password. The scammers behind Cryptolocker will be happy to provide the key as soon as you send them the requested extortionary fee. Or maybe not. Sometimes, even if you pay the ransom, you may never be able to open your files.

The lesson is one you’ve heard before: Prevention. That means

  • Don’t open attachments or click on links in emails unless you’re positive they’re safe. Even then, hover your mouse over the link to see where it is actually pointing.
  • Keep your security software up-to-date. If you use free versions of anti-virus or anti-malware tools, be aware they may not continuously scan your computer.
  • Back up your files regularly. Caution: Back up to a location separate from your computer, for example, to a network drive, external hard drive, or cloud storage. You can do this with free software such as Macrium Reflect, even if you’re less than technically-inclined.

Thinking of ignoring these oft-repeated simple steps? Ask yourself what price you would rather pay—a few minutes of your time to safeguard your computer’s contents, or a lot of time, annoyance, and cash to recover from a predicament you could have avoided?

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