If you’ve been following the news over the weekend you’ll have seen reports of a massive worldwide ransomware attack. One of the biggest casualties in the UK was the NHS, where 48 trusts were affected with some still having problems. Is your home computer safe from attack?
What is Ransomware?
The particular piece of malware responsible for last week’s attack is known as WannaCry, a virus falling into a category called Ransomware. It targets computers running Microsoft Windows operating systems and is usually picked up via email.
Ransomware encrypts files on your computer and usually makes demands for money in order to be sent the decryption key. Without the key the malware will destroy the files and make them irretrievable. There is usually a time limit for the demand and the ransom itself would often have to be paid via a crypto-currency such as Bitcoin. That makes the payment impossible to track due to its unregulated nature.
There is no guarantee that your files will be released even if the ransom is paid. It’s important to keep a backup on a separate drive or in the cloud of your most important files so they can be restored if you are ever a victim.
Am I at Risk?
The vast majority of home users should be fine. If you’re running any OS other than Windows on your PC (such as OSX or Linux) then you have nothing to worry about. If you do run windows then you must make sure you keep up with software updates.
Most Windows computers will keep themselves up to date automatically via the internet unless that feature has been turned off. In either case, it’s worthwhile manually checking for updates regularly via the control panel. If you are running older versions of Windows such as XP that are now discontinued and unsupported you need to take action as soon as possible.
Windows XP support ended some time ago, which means Microsoft are no longer patching the OS against newly discovered vulnerabilities. The window for upgrades to Microsoft’s newest OS (Windows 10) for free has also passed. But there are things you can do as we’ll discuss below.
Your Operating System
There are a number of things you can do to protect yourself against attack. First and foremost, if you are running an old and outdated OS such as Windows XP or older and that PC is ever connected to the internet you need to think about upgrading now. You can buy a copy of Windows 10 here, which is the latest OS from Microsoft.
However, if you cannot afford to pay for a Windows licence or if your PC is significantly outdated in hardware terms you still have options. You could try a free operating system such as Ubuntu or Remix OS depending on your needs and hardware. It may also be worth considering a new computer all together as the vast majority of new laptop or desktop computers at retail will ship with Windows 10 pre-installed.
For everyone else that’s still on a supported Microsoft OS (Windows 7 and newer) it’s imperative that you check for updates and either keep automatic updating turned on in settings, or check manually on a regular schedule. This way your PC will be constantly patched against new threats as and when they are discovered.
Keeping Your PC Secure
Beyond making sure your OS is up to date, using a good antivirus is a must and keep your Windows Firewall active. Home users have a wide variety of free antivirus software available to them including Bitdefender and AVG. There’s no excuse not to have some security installed and active.
Finally, never open any email attachments unless you’re absolutely sure they are safe. Look for odd language in emails you receive, even if they are from someone you know. It’s easy to spoof an email address, so if you’re concerned contact the person it came from by other means if you can and verify that the email was in fact sent by them.
Use a secure modern browser such as Edge or Chrome for an extra layer of protection. These web browsers will warn you if you navigate to a website known to distribute malware.
If you’re unsure on how to proceed or feel like an OS upgrade is beyond your technical knowhow, feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll help in any way I can. You might also want to enlist the aid of a tech savvy family member or a tech support service if you need more direct assistance.
If you do ever find yourself with a malware infection, don’t panic and ask for help if you need it!