Ransomware is just what it sounds like: malicious software created by a criminal hacker who uses the software to infect your computer and restrict your ability to access it until you pay a ransom. The criminal hacker often attempts to extort money from victims by displaying an on-screen alert that tells the user that his or her systems have been locked or encrypted. Users are told that unless a ransom is paid, access will not be restored. The ransom demanded from individuals varies greatly but is frequently $200–$400 dollars and must be paid in virtual currency, such as Bitcoin, according to the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), a part of the Department of Homeland Security

(Updated on July 27, 2017. Scroll to bottom of page.)

How does the ransomware infiltrate someone’s computer?

Ransomware is often spread through phishing emails that contain malicious attachments or through drive-by downloading — when a user unknowingly visits an infected website and then malware is downloaded and installed without the user’s knowledge. Other methods involve social media, instant messaging and other ways to access a company server that spreads the ransomware across an organization’s network.

Why is it so effective?

According to US-CERT,  criminal hackers using ransomware instill fear and panic into their victims, causing them to click on a link or pay a ransom. When the user follows such instructions, their computer and network can become infected with additional malware.


A ransom message is displayed on the screen of a victim’s computer.

Examples of ransomware messages displayed on the victim’s screen

  • “Your computer has been infected with a virus. Click here to resolve the issue.”
  • “Your computer was used to visit websites with illegal content. To unlock your computer, you must pay a $100 fine.”
  • “All files on your computer have been encrypted. You must pay this ransom within 72 hours to regain access to your data.”

Ransomware’s impact on small businesses

Small businesses can be infected with ransomware, leading to negative consequences, including

  • Temporary or permanent loss of sensitive or proprietary information,
  • Disruption to regular operations
  • Financial losses incurred to restore systems and files
  • Potential harm to an organization’s reputation

Paying the ransom does not guarantee the encrypted files will be released; it only guarantees that the malicious actors receive the victim’s money, and in some cases, their banking information. In addition, decrypting files does not mean the malware infection itself has been removed.

14 tips for minimizing your risk of being a ransomware victim

US-CERT discourages victims from paying the ransom, as this does not guarantee files will be released. Report instances of fraud to the FBI at the Internet Crime Complaint Center. US-CERT encourages users and administrators take the following preventive measures to protect their computer networks from ransomware:

  1. Employ a data backup and recovery plan for all critical information. Perform and test regular backups to limit the impact of data or system loss and to expedite the recovery process. Note that network-connected backups can also be affected by ransomware; critical backups should be isolated from the network for optimum protection.
  2. Use application whitelisting to help prevent malicious software and unapproved programs from running.
  3. Keep your operating system and software up-to-date with the latest updates and patches. Vulnerable applications and operating systems are the targets of most attacks.
  4. Maintain up-to-date anti-virus software, and scan all software downloaded from the internet prior to executing.
  5. Restrict users’ ability (permissions) to install and run unwanted software applications.
  6. Avoid enabling macros from email attachments. For enterprises or organizations, it may be best to block email messages with attachments from suspicious sources.
  7. Do not follow unsolicited web links in emails.
  8. Implement an awareness and training program. Because end users are targets, employees should be aware of the threat of ransomware and how it is delivered.
  9. Enable strong spam filters to prevent phishing emails from reaching employees and authenticate inbound email using technologies like Sender Policy Framework (SPF), Domain Message Authentication Reporting and Conformance (DMARC), and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) to prevent email spoofing.
  10. Scan all incoming and outgoing emails to detect threats and filter executable files (used to perform computer functions) from reaching employees.
  11. Configure firewalls to block access to known malicious IP addresses.
  12. Set anti-virus and anti-malware programs to conduct regular scans automatically.
  13. No employees should be assigned administrative access unless absolutely needed and those with a need for administrator accounts should only use them when necessary.
  14. Configure access controls—including file, directory, and network share permissions— with least privilege in mind. If an employee only needs to read specific files, the employee should not have write access to those files, directories, or shares.

VIA | U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team 

Update | After this article was published, we received several versions of the question, “Should I pay the ransom?” This answer is from the article, “How does ransomware work? Understanding the economics” originally published on ITNews.com. There is more helpful information in the article.

Should you pay the ransom?

Put bluntly, what should a business do if one or more of its computers is hit by ransomware? The advice of many law enforcement and government agencies is that companies should never pay the ransom because this rewards criminals and encourages them to carry out more attacks. If no-one ever paid a ransom to unlock their data then the whole ransomware business would disappear. That’s the course of action that’s in the long-term best interest of everyone, but while refusing to pay may be in the best interest of the business community as a whole, it is not necessarily in the best interest of a particular ransomware victim who may permanently lose access to vital data and go out of business. Faced with a choice between refusing to pay a ransom in order to serve the best interest of the community and going out of business in the process, or paying a relatively modest ransom and staying in business, the obvious choice is to pay the ransom. (…)


Related Articles

How to Monitor Small Business Computer Security Alerts

When major security threats occur, here are places to turn for the latest updates.

11 Google Scams and Links to Google Support for Each | 2017

Advice for avoiding online scams that try to make you think they originate with Google.

IRS Issues Urgent Warning to Small Businesses: Beware of W-2 Phishing Scam Return | 2017

The IRS has issued an urgent warning about the return of an annual scam. This year it’s worse.

What Does HTTPS Mean? And Why a Small Business Website Needs the ‘S’

Get ready to add more security to your business website in 2017 and beyond.

Homeland Security Tips for Choosing Harder to Hack Passwords

In addition to password management applications and two-step validation, here are some tips for making your password harder to hack.

Passwords Are Stolen Everyday; How to Protect Yours From Being One of Them

Don’t wait until your password is stolen to follow these procedures.

How to Recognize and Avoid an Attempt to Crack Your Two-Step Verification Passwords

As attackers evolve, there are many steps businesses and consumers can take to protect themselves.

How Voice Recognition Software is Being Used to Detect Cyber Criminals

(In cyber crime), the weakest link is often the human. Software developers are trying to strengthen that link.

How to Avoid a New Cyber Attack Attempting to Access Small Business Bank  Funds

Cyber criminals are using a new attack against hundreds of small business employees.

Seven Resolutions for 2016 That Will Help Protect Your Small Business Computers

Simple steps you should take to help protect your computers and data in 2016.

Top Ten Free Antivirus Utilities For Your Small Business | 2016

PCMag.com has released its annual list of free antivirus utilities.

Most Small Businesses Have No Cyber Attack Response Plan

A survey reveals 80% of small business owners say their companies do not have a cyber attack response plan.

If Your Business Bank Account Gets Hacked, Your Bank May Blame You

For individual customers, banks must reimburse victims of cyber-fraud. For bank accounts of businesses, even one owned by one person, the same rule doesn’t apply.

Why You Should Still Use a Password Manager

A breach of a password management system provides another opportunity to explain how a password management service is better than other methods.

Advice From Google on Avoiding Scams Directed at Small Businesses

A wide range of warnings for avoiding scams from con-artists claiming to be from Google.

More Tips for Actively Managing Your Passwords

More helpful tips and ideas for managing your passwords.

What Small Business Customers Should Know and Do About the JPMorgan Chase Cyberattack

From the bank’s SEC filing and information provided on Chase.com, this is what is currently known about the cyberattack and what the bank is recommending to its customers.

How Hackers Use ‘Social Engineering’ and How to Prevent It

Following the recent wave of celebrities having online accounts hacked, here is an explanation of “social engineering,” part of the method the cyber criminals likely used.

Ten Tips From the FCC for Improving Your Small Business Cyber Security

Ways to improve your small business cyber security from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

Password Protection Advice from SmallBusiness.com

Username and password protection is an ongoing requirement for small businesses. Here is a roundup of helpful advice on internet security and password management that has appeared recently on SmallBusiness.com

Ebay Asks 145 Million Users to Change Passwords

Ebay is asking its 145 million users to change their passwords because of a cyberattack that compromised a database containing encrypted passwords “and other non-financial data.”

What is Two-Step Verification and Why You Should Start Using Them

It’s incredibly easy and fast to use a two-step verification method to protect your online accounts. Here’s how they work and why you should use them.

How (and Why) to Use a Password Management Application

A lock on your front door doesn’t do you any good if you keep the key under the mat, just like the best security on the web won’t protect you if you have the same bad password on every site you visit.

How to Reduce the Odds of Being Hacked While Using Public Wifi

Getting in a solid work session at the local coffee shop may be a tempting idea, but it has its risks. Like getting your personal information stolen because you were careless on a public network.