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Can you imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t gain access to your computer or mobile phone? Like most of us you’d probably feel like you’d lost a limb, and it’s this feeling that the computer virus known as ransomware plays upon. So that you know what to look out for when it comes to this scam and what you should do if you ever encounter it, we’ve put together this guide.

The basics

Much like other computer viruses, ransomware tends to get installed onto a computer through a phishing email, spam or fake software update.

Once the recipient clicks the link or opens the attachment, the virus then sets about encrypting the user’s files. Mobile users can get caught out by downloading a fake app. Once the computer or device is infected, a fee will be demanded in return of the files. This is often demanded in the digital currency bitcoins as they are harder to trace, with one or two bitcoins (currently equivalent to £330) being the usual request. In most cases, there’s a time limit to comply to and the ransom increases if not paid.

A more sinister side to the scam can arise if the ransom note takes the form of a law enforcement notice. This is less common now, but when the virus first started circulating users could be directed to a web page that appeared to be from a law enforcement agency (the FBI or police, for example). This page would falsely claim that the unwitting victim had committed a crime – for example, illegal images of children had been found on the machine and a fine would need to be paid.

Another version of this sees the notice threaten to email all of your contacts to expose you – even though you’ve committed no crime in the first place.

What you should do

It’s natural to panic when first faced with a malicious virus like ransomware but it’s essential that you try to stay calm. The first thing to remember is that although the software encrypts your files most of the time, in some cases criminals just use this as a threat so be sure to check whether you can still access your files.

If your files have indeed been encrypted, the only way you’ll be able to retrieve them is if you use a previously backed-up version. If this option isn’t available to you, it would be advisable to get in contact with the police before you do anything. Please remember if you’re considering paying the ransom, there’s no guarantee that the criminals will clear the infection if you pay up or that they won’t just keep coming back for more money afterwards.

By succumbing to their demands, you may find that you’re contacted more and more from that point onwards, as you’re now seen as being an easy target.

How to protect yourself

There are a number of ways that you can protect yourself from a scam like this, so take note of the following:

• Make sure that your computer has antivirus software installed and that it is up-to-date. There are a number of free antivirus programmes available including: AVG, Avast, AVIRA and Panda Security.

• Don’t open attachments or click on any links included in unsolicited emails. Even if you do recognise the sender, be suspicious if the email is worded unusually as their computer or email may have been hacked. If you’re unsure, always verify with the sender before you do anything.

• Only download software from a verified website onto your computer, tablet or smartphone. If you’re making a payment for it, check that the website is secure: with https:/ at the start of the address and a key or padlock symbol in the address bar.

• Keep a copy of all of your important files on an external drive, so that you always have a backup if the worst were to happen.

• If you believe you’ve been a victim of a ransomware attack, report it to Action Fraud.

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