Ransomware 101: How to stay cyber secure

July 20, 2020

Most of us have a seen a hostage movie before. It is, after all, a pretty common Hollywood formula: Bad guys storm a bank (or high-rise in Los Angeles or shipping boat), take a bunch of hostages, and then make demands before they release them.
Now imagine that scenario, except:

  • The bad guys = Cyber criminals
  • Hostages = Your computer, devices and any files that may be on them
  • Demands = Requests for money

That’s how ransomware works.
Don’t worry, though – you don’t need to be a superhero to stay secure.
Here are the steps you can take to ensure you aren’t a victim of a cyber criminal’s attack.

"a frightened-looking person, with dialogue windows and exclamation marks"What is ransomware

Ransomware is a form of malware that infects your computer or device. When ransomware takes control of your computer or device, it locks you out of that computer or device entirely or certain files.
To get the ransomware on your computer or devices, cyber criminals trick you into downloading a program that looks legitimate. But what you’re really downloading is a piece of software designed to take control of your information so you can no longer access it.
They then refuse access to your computer, devices, or files unless you pay a ransom.
You’ll usually know when you have ransomware if you receive a notification stating that your computer or data has been locked and a demand that a payment be made for you to regain access.  Sometimes the notification states that authorities have detected illegal activity on your computer, and the payment is a fine to avoid prosecution.
There are two common types of ransomware:

  • Lockscreen ransomware: displays an image that prevents you from accessing your computer
  • Encryption ransomware: encrypts files on your system's hard drive and sometimes on shared network drives, USB drives, external hard drives, and even some cloud storage drives, preventing you from opening them

How to protect yourself from ransomware

No strategy for cyber security is completely foolproof. But, like with putting winter tires on your car during the colder months, there are steps you can take to lessen the risk.
Here are steps you can take to protect yourself from ransomware attacks:

Avoid suspicious downloads

The best way to protect yourself from malware generally is also the best tactic for protecting yourself from ransomware: Avoiding suspicious downloads.
The most common tactic cyber criminals use for spreading ransomware is deception. They trick victims into downloading a piece of software that looks legitimate but is in fact ransomware.
Cyber criminals commonly spread ransomware through email attachments, infected programs, and compromised websites.

Regularly back up your files

Regularly backing up your files is a key defence against ransomware. It means that, if you do become a victim of a ransomware attack, you have an easy “out”. Ideally, you would have a back up somewhere other than on your device, such as on an external hard drive or on the cloud, so you can recover your files if your device is locked.
Backing up your files takes some of the sting out of a ransomware attack. After all, if you have a back-up, cyber criminals won’t be able to hold your information ransom.

Keep your operating system updated

Updating your operating systems offers a lot of benefits for protecting your devices from cyber attacks. This includes ransomware.
By updating your operating system whenever updates become available – rather than continually putting them off – you can reduce the chances of your devices getting infected.

What to do if you get infected with ransomware

Hopefully, you’ll never be a victim of ransomware. But the fact is that cyber criminals are skilled at tricking their victims into downloading files or clicking on links that look legitimate.
Despite what you may do to protect yourself, you still could become a victim.
If you do become a victim of a ransomware attack, here’s what you should do:

  • Do not pay the ransom. These threats are meant to scare and intimidate you, and they do not come from a law enforcement agency. Even if you submit payment, there is no guarantee that you will regain access to your system.
  • Disconnect your device from the internet so that you can prevent the ransomware from spreading to other connected devices.
  • Contact a reputable computer technician or specialist to find out whether your computer can be repaired and your data retrieved. However, if you had saved a backup to the cloud or on a hard drive you will be able to easily recover your files.
  • Contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre to report the incident and contact the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security to report the ransomware.


The prospect of getting a device infected with ransomware is scary. But by taking the right steps you can significantly reduce the chances you will be a victim of a ransomware attack.

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