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Ransomware threat grows; small businesses at risk

A recent uptick in hackers using ransomware to take their victims' data hostage means that organizations should aggressively move to back up data -- and teach employees how hackers work.

RansomwareAccording to PC Magazine, in a ransomware attack criminals deploy malicious code through email or websites. The code then encrypts computer data so that the company can no longer access it. Criminals then demand payment for unlocking it.

The technique has been very successful. Ransomware reports rose 35-fold from the last quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016. Some extremely high profile cases have made big news, such as the U.K.'s National Health Service data that cost the organization $100,000 in ransom and an estimated $1 billion in damages.

However, small businesses are just as likely -- or more likely -- to have a ransomware attack. In fact, according to PC magazine, some criminals exclusively target small businesses, which rarely have the IT resources in place to prevent such attacks. One attack on a small business can not only disrupt commerce, but likely poison relationships with larger companies.

Employees themselves are often responsible for letting the hackers in by downloading malicious files through email. These email attachments can masquerade as innocuous pdfs, but, in fact, they are executable programs. No one should ever click on an attachment in email if they do not recognize the sender.

Even legitimate websites can often host malicious programs and one visit to such a website can mean ransomware infection. Malicious links are one way these programs take over. Users should never click links or popups to update extensions, for example.

Preparation is key. Constantly update all computers. Updates might be a pain, but they are critical since updates often address security issues. Cybercriminals love old operating systems.  They know how they work.  They may not know yet how to compromise the newest and best systems.
Experts recommend deploying so-called hosted endpoint security to manage computers, networks and mobile devices. These inexpensive programs are provided by companies such as F-secure, Webroot Secure, and Avast.

Finally, a great step to take in avoiding ransomware involves finding a backup solution to fall back on in case the defenses fail and the data is already being held for ransom. Sophisticated solutions exist that allow a company to maintain several layers of backups that can be rolled back to a time before hackers compromised the data just like nothing ever happened.

If you are attacked, should you pay?  Experts say no -- easy to say but not easy to do if you are facing catastrophic data loss. But remember, these are criminals.  There is no guarantee they will restore your systems after you pay and every chance they won't.