What Is Ransomware? How Can Internet Users Protect Themselves From It?

Pixabay/TypographyimagesRansomware is a serious threat to home and business networks today following WannaCry's spread in more than 150 countries around the world.

Ransomware is just one of the ways that cybercriminals profit from weak computer security. They are a class of software designed to infiltrate computers, and once inside, they lock up or encrypt important documents and data. Afterward, threats that the data will be destroyed or made inaccessible are made, if ransom has not been paid after a set period. How can one avoid falling victim to these nefarious cyber schemes?

Malware, which ransomware is a type of, are often transmitted via email or online through compromised websites. The latest wave of attack has attracted widespread media attention as WannaCry spread to more than 150 countries, locking up 200,000 computers and systems in countries including China, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Britain, according to the New York Times.

It's not just home users who are affected, as the attacks have targeted hospitals and businesses as well. To protect important files and computers from ransomware, a few steps can be taken.

Keep Software Updated

WannaCry, in particular, took advantage of thousands of computers who have older versions of the Windows file-sharing system. It is through the security loophole of the Windows Server Message Block (SMB) file-sharing service that the ransomware spread unchecked through local networks in businesses worldwide.

Among the Windows version affected include Windows 8, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, according to CNet. Users of these older Operating systems are advised to upgrade as soon as they can and to turn Windows Update on if it's disabled.

Be Careful With Suspicious Emails and Pop-Ups

WannaCry may have initially spread from the first infected machines via email attachments, security experts believe. Users are warned to be careful when opening attachments or clicking links from dubious emails.

People should always check to see if an email is coming from a legitimate address, and if the message is consistent with how the sender usually composes their emails. Obvious typos, misspellings, and grammar errors, especially from emails purportedly coming from a bank or internet service providers, should be treated with suspicion.

Avoid clicking on pop-ups on web pages, even if they advertise products that claim to remove or protect from malware.