Remember when a ransom note was something you only saw in the movies? These days, ransom notes are digital and it’s your computer files and photos that criminals are holding hostage. Ransomware is a form of malicious software that criminals trick you into installing on your computer so that they can try to extort money from you.

How the scam works

Ransomware is malicious software that you download onto your computer by clicking on infected pop-up advertisements, websites or email attachments. Once the malware is on your computer, hackers can take control and encrypt your files. When files are encrypted, it is very much like the files are locked, and scammers will demand a ransom payment to unencrypt and unlock the files.

Criminals will often request small amounts of money – sometimes as low as $100 – to ensure the ransom is paid and may even ask for payment in bitcoins, a new form of digital currency, so the payment can’t be traced. Keep in mind that even if you pay the ransom, there is no guarantee that they will unencrypt your files.

The best way to protect yourself against a ransomware attack is to prevent the initial download of malware onto your computer since it can be very difficult to recover encrypted files.

How you can protect yourself

  • Install reputable, up-to-date anti-virus and anti-malware protection software and keep on top of updates.
  • Take the time to install the latest version of your operating system.
  • Backup your files frequently to an external source - like an external drive or cloud-based storage - that is not linked to your computer. If they are linked, your backed-up data could be encrypted too.
  • Be careful and don’t click on links or open attachments from unknown addresses – you could unknowingly download the malware by clicking on an email attachment, link or online pop-up window.
  • Make sure you have a pop-up blocker running in your web browser.

What to do if you are a victim

It can be very difficult to unencrypt your files and remove the ransomware from your computer. If you are the victim of ransomware, you can consider the following:

  • Check with your anti-virus provider - if you are familiar with data recovery, you may try to remove the malware yourself. Some anti-virus providers can detect this malware and may have instructions and software to help.
  • Consult an IT security specialist – a professional may be able to help you remove the ransomware and restore your files if you have them backed up.
  • Change your passwords – change all of your online passwords, particularly for things like online banking. That will stop the criminals from accessing your accounts if they were able to access your passwords.
  • Report the scam – alert your local police and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

For more information

Public Safety Canada: Get Cyber Safe Guide for Small and Medium Businesses

Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre:

Download the CBA’s Small Business Cyber Security Toolkit to help protect your small business from cyber threats.

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