Lately it seems like widespread, malicious cyber attacks are happening more and more frequently. A few months ago we looked at the phishing scam that targeted Google and its Gmail users, and now we’re hearing reports of widespread cyber attacks on small businesses and corporations through the use of ransomware.

Ransomware is a term used for any malicious software that infects a victim’s computer and encrypts their files, making the computer virtually unusable. The software will then often instruct the user to send money to an untraceable address in order for the attacker to unlock the device – essentially holding the victim’s files to ransom.

You may have heard of the ‘Petya’ Ransomware attack that recently infected the Cadbury factory in Hobart, holding their files at ransom for $300USD per computer. It is believed that this virus was accidentally activated through an employee’s email and was then able to infiltrate the factory’s network.

$300USD may not seem like too steep of a price to pay, however the unfortunate reality is that oftentimes the victim’s files never get decrypted after payment is made. Therefore it’s important to be prepared for such attacks and to ensure your computer is as secure as possible. Installing a virus protection program and ensuring all your software is up to date is the best way to protect your computer, and making sure to avoid suspicious websites or email attachments will reduce your likelihood of infection.

Ransomeware attacks can happen to anyone, however small businesses are high priority targets for cyber criminals as they usually have lower levels of security and are more likely to simply pay the ransom to unlock their files. So if you’re a small business owner, or you’re simply concerned about the security of your personal computer, the tips below will help you to stay safe from ransomware and other malicious cyberattacks. Also, be sure to check out the article on avoiding phishing scams that we posted a few months ago. Many of the tips used to avoid phishing scams apply to staying safe from ransomware as well.

Install a third-party antivirus program on your computer and run it frequently (once per week should suffice): This will hopefully catch any malicious software that may happen to get onto your computer and quarantine it before it can infect any files. I personally use Avast! antivirus and find it to work efficiently with very little intrusion on my regular computer usage.

Keep your operating system and other programs up to date: Many of these malicious software programs target vulnerabilities in the computer’s operating system and similar programs, such as email clients and internet browsers. Keeping these programs up to date is the best way to ensure these vulnerabilities get patched up before you become a target for ransomware and viruses.

Backup your files frequently: It’s very important to keep backups of all your files just incase your computer does get infected with ransomware or a virus. If your files are backed up to an external hard-drive or cloud-based storage system, you can simply replace any files that become encrypted or infected. Keeping backups of all your files is a good habit to get into, particularly for small businesses, as hardware failures and theft can happen without warning.

What to do if you do get infected with Ransomware: In the unfortunate case that you do become infected with ransomware and your files are encrypted, most experts believe it to be a waste of time and money to simply pay the ransom in the hopes of your files being released. Depending on the extent of the infection and the type of computer that you have, you may be able to have your files decrypted by a computer repair technician. Of course, it’s always better to focus on prevention than to hope for a cure, and taking the above advice is a good way to protect yourself.