Ransomware is one of the most profitable and fast-growing forms of malware, accounting for over 10% of security breaches in 2021. Ransomware will typically infect a victim’s device after being mistakenly downloaded through malicious links, email attachments, and downloads or from exploiting software and system security vulnerabilities. After infection, ransomware will discreetly work in the background, targeting their victim’s databases and encrypting files to make them inaccessible. After this, the victim (either an individual or an entire organisation) will receive a message revealing that their system is being held hostage until a ransom is paid. Requested ransom payments are usually paid through digital currencies such as Bitcoin and can range from a few hundred to millions, with the average demand in 2021 being an eye-watering $50 million

It’s clear that ransomware is a very serious cyber threat, so it’s important to learn the key indicators of a successful attack and, better yet, find out how to protect yourself from falling victim to ransomware to begin with. Although ransomware technology is highly advanced and sneaky, there are a handful of easy steps you can take to stop this malware from infecting your device. Keep reading to learn how to protect yourself from ransomware in 2022!

Laptop infected with ransomware
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How to protect yourself from ransomware in 2022 

Although it’s impossible to completely prevent ransomware, there are some simple steps you can take to significantly reduce your chance of falling victim to a ransomware attack. Here are five things you can do to help protect yourself from ransomware – 

  • Avoid suspicious email attachments and links

Phishing is a social engineering technique that is used by attackers to circulate ransomware. With phishing attempts, ransomware will be hidden in email attachments, messages, and links that are disguised as legitimate sources. This aims to either trick users into allowing ransomware to inject itself into their devices or to lure them into revealing sensitive information to what they believe is a trusted source.

To avoid falling victim to ransomware through phishing attempts, you should be incredibly cautious when opening email attachments or clicking on links. For instance, when receiving emails from companies, instead of clicking on any links, we recommend that you type the company’s URL into your browser and perform any required actions directly through their website. 

Additionally, malicious emails from ransomware attackers that are disguising themselves as companies will often contain generic terms such as “Dear customer” rather than addressing you directly. You can also check emails for common grammatical or spelling mistakes, as this is a tell-tale sign that the sender is not legitimate. The general rule is to always be on the cautious side and if something seems suspicious then it’s best to immediately delete an email or message without opening any links or attachments. 

Phishing websites are also widespread and can contain ransomware that’s hidden in pop-up ads or misleading buttons and links. These malware-ridden sites are designed to replicate legitimate websites to lure in unsuspecting victims. Again, we suggest that when visiting a website you should type in the URL rather than clicking on any links. Many phishing sites will use URLs that are similar to the website they are masquerading as and will contain misspellings and/or swapped letters (such as G00gle.com) to trick users. 

  • Keep your OS and device software up-to-date

Keeping your operating system and software up-to-date at all times can stop ransomware from sneaking onto your device by exploiting security vulnerabilities and outdated systems. With most operating systems such as Windows and macOS, you can enable automatic updates to ensure that your device is always running on the latest version. All other software including tools, browsers, plugins, and apps should also be updated often as companies will regularly patch known vulnerabilities. By keeping your OS and other software up-to-date you can drastically reduce the number of exploitable entry points available to a ransomware attacker.

  • Regularly back up important data

Although our main goal is to prevent ransomware, this is not always possible. So, it’s a good idea to back up all important files and data to reduce the damage caused by a ransomware attack. The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) suggests that users abide by the 3-2-1 approach which was first introduced by photographer Peter Krogh in 2005. This approach indicates that users should have 3 backup copies of their data on 2 different devices with 1 being in a separate location. Of course, you can always back up your data more than three times and on more than two different devices, but this approach is still a good place to start for most users.

  • Use a VPN 

VPNs (short for Virtual Private Networks) are terrific security tools that can help protect you from forms of malware such as ransomware. VPNs work by encrypting user traffic in a secure tunnel and rerouting it through a remote server, concealing each user’s IP address. Although VPNs cannot prevent phishing attempts as they rely on human error (such as opening malicious links or email attachments to successfully execute an attack, these tools can still reduce your chances of falling victim to ransomware attacks. 

Alongside securing traffic with encryption that is almost impossible to crack, many VPN services also provide users with several other security measures to increase their online safety. For instance, the highly popular VPN, NordVPN*, has an integrated Threat Protection tool that has been created to protect users from ads, trackers, and various forms of malware (including ransomware). This tool stops users from landing on any websites that have been flagged as suspicious and will scan every file that is downloaded by a user, immediately deleting any that contain malware. 

Other reputable VPN providers also have some form of built-in ad blocking tools that can further shield users from ransomware attacks. Compromised websites that are used to spread ransomware will often be flooded with autoplay videos, pop up, and banner ads. These ads are usually spammed on websites to trick users into accidentally clicking them, triggering ransomware installation.

 As ad blocking tools work by automatically stopping any ads on a web page from loading, they prevent users from being tricked into unintentionally downloading ransomware and other forms of malware. Not only this, but by blocking all ads before they have a chance to load, users can also drastically speed up page loading times and reduce mobile data usage. If you want to learn more about using ad blocking tools to protect yourself online, then read our informative article that breaks down the best VPNs with built-in ad blockers in 2022!

We also suggest that you pair a VPN with some form of antivirus software to give yourself the maxim possible protection against ransomware. If you’re unsure which antivirus software to use, then have a look at our selection of the best antivirus software in 2022 for WindowsmacOS, and mobile devices

  • Learn the signs of a ransomware attack 

Of course, the main goal is to avoid ransomware attacks. However, sometimes a cybercriminal can successfully infect your device with malware regardless of which preventative steps you take. To reduce potential damage and respond to an attack as quickly as possible, we suggest that you learn the key signs of a ransomware infection. 

Early on in an attack, there are typically more subtle changes that are easy to miss such as the renaming of files or folders on your device. A more serious sign of a ransomware infection is the deletion of files and data. As an attacker will try and remain undetected for as long as possible whilst it removes data, it will typically begin deleting smaller files. You may also notice that certain files can no longer be opened on your device as a ransomware attacker starts to encrypt the data on your drive. 

Finally, the most obvious sign that you’ve unfortunately fallen victim to a ransomware attack is a splash screen message appearing on your screen declaring that your data has been encrypted, stolen, or deleted along with instructions on how to pay the attacker’s ransom to restore access to your device. Don’t worry, however, as if you follow the above steps then you will substantially reduce your chance of encountering ransomware to begin with!