What is a Ransomware Attack? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: David Whitsett

David has taught computer applications, computer fundamentals, computer networking, and marketing at the college level. He has a MBA in marketing.

Did you ever think you could be held hostage remotely? With a ransomware attack, you and your data are the victims. In this lesson, we'll define ransomware, provide examples, and examine the best strategies for prevention and recovery.

Do What I Say or Else...

It's all your photos, all your documents, and all your music files. It's also all your personal information - everything you value on your computer. It's locked away where you can't access any of it unless you pay up. Scary enough? It's a real possibility through something called a ransomware attack, which is essentially a type of virus or malware that infects your computer and hides your data away unless you pay up.

How does this work? Computer hackers and anti-virus software companies have been doing battle since the late 1980s. Many hackers concentrated on finding ways of taking data - passwords, credit card numbers, and personal information - that could prove useful to them. Some hackers just created mischief, kind of like computer vandalism. They invented viruses that prevented your computer from operating properly or bombed your screen with pop-up ads.

Ransomware Attacks

Ransomware really began to take off with the growth of the Internet (easier electronic ransom payments) and advances in encryption technology. Encryption is a means of securing data from unauthorized access through an encoding process. The data is converted into a form that's only meaningful if you have a key to unlock it. So, the data is safe from the outside world. But, here's the flip side - what if someone sneaks into your system and encrypts your data? Guess what, they're more than willing to sell you the key to unlock it for a price. That's the basis of ransomware. Encryption is the core technology behind many variants of ransomware and ransomware names reflect that such as CryptoWall, CryptoLocker, CTB Locker, and TeslaCrypt.

The ransom payment is usually demanded in Bitcoin (think digital gold) or via a MoneyGram of some sort. The victim is usually given only a limited amount of time to pay up or suffer the consequences. This adds to the fear factor. Ransomware attacks can affect both computers and mobile devices (through SMS text messages). It's not just home users or individuals that are targeted. Businesses and government institutions have been victims as well. And, it's not just lone hackers perpetrating the attacks, there are well-funded groups of cyber criminals armed with sophisticated technologies that have turned ransomware into a lucrative business.

Where Do Attacks Come From?

Ransomware gets into your device the same way most viruses do. You open an email with an infected link or attachment. Once you click on the infected item, a download begins that brings the ransomware into your device. You can also get infected by visiting a website that includes malicious links.

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