Last year, I visited Atlanta Airport seeking an incident report. The airport is a massive place and, after I found a very helpful airport employee, I wound up outside the emergency services offices. Fortunately, the staff was both friendly and helpful and, within minutes, the gentleman I was speaking with was asking his colleague to look up the incident in question in order to provide me with the information I needed for the next steps forward. It all seemed very easy until it wasn’t. His colleague looked at his screen and then stated that something seemed to be going on and his computer was not responding. After trying a few things without success, I was given a phone number to call and follow up. I was to get what I was looking for within the next couple of days.
I left and heard nothing for almost a month, which actually worked out for me because I was traveling a lot and would not have been able to do much with the information. When my call was finally returned, I learned that the reason it had taken so long was that the city of Atlanta had been taken down by a Ransomware attack. The day I was at the airport, was when the attack was happening! Imagine that, I was in the midst of a lot of drama and excitement and had no idea. The only story I have to tell is that I saw a blue screen of death and then it took three weeks for my call to be returned.
I will say this: if anyone is affected by a ransomware attack, my story is probably the best outcome to have. A couple of years ago I shared a story about my friend whose clients were victims of ransomware attacks where $300 to $600 was demanded of them. In that time, ransomware attacks have become more sophisticated and a lot more frequent. Cryptocurrencies have also contributed to the boom because it makes the attackers more difficult to track down. As I wrote in a piece on ransomware, the first known ransomware attack happened in 1989, where the attacker sent floppy disks to attendees at a conference. A program on that disk locked the computer on its 90th restart, demanding $189 of the user for a resolution. The Atlanta ransomware attackers demanded $52,000 (and it took over $2.5 million for the city to recover from the attack). The attackers may ask for what may seem as relatively small amounts when they attack but it adds up. In 2016, ransomware attackers made over $1 billion and that amount climbs every year. In addition to the upfront cost of the ransomware demand, often a victim has to spend a lot of time and money recovering from the attack. I mentioned before that Atlanta spent over $2.5 million and they are not alone. Ransomware damages are predicted to reach $11.5 billion this year.
As you can see from my friend’s experience and that of Atlanta, there is no victim too large or too small for an attack and so it is imperative for all of us to take steps to protect ourselves and do what we can to mitigate any damages should we be attacked.
- The first easy step is backup, backup and then backup offline. Because I have had backups fail on me, I try to have two backups of information and itis important to make sure that your backup is separate from your computer. In this way, should your computer be attacked, your backup will be someplace else.
- Then try to use two-factor authentication for your logins. Many applications and websites already insist on this but try to make it a habit for yourself, whether or not someone else is doing it.
- Update your passwords regularly – yes, it’s a schlep but especially with very regular news about companies being hacked, companies that house your sensitive information and logins, it makes sense to keep changing these.
- Be careful about opening up emails and clicking on attachments or links in those emails. I know we live in a world with way too many emails and way too little time, but think before you click. If you receive an email you are not expecting, check to make sure that it is a valid email. Just last week, I received an email from a fellow CPA and when I checked with her, it turned out that her email was hacked and was sending out malicious links. If the tone and language of the email are vague or don’t sound like the voice of the person you have dealt with in the past, double-check with the person. It doesn’t take long and can save a lot of pain.
- Update your software. A lot of ransomware takes advantage of vulnerabilities in software and taking advantage of the fact that many people do not regularly update their software. Set your machine to update automatically, then you don’t even have to think about it.
- If, unfortunately, you are a victim of a ransomware attack, think on it before you pay. You are dealing with criminals. Although it seems that more often ransomware attackers do restore machines after attacks (it’s better for business, apparently) it is not assured. Often people find that they have no option because they do not have a recovery plan. If you have the option of recovery, it is easier to make the decision on whether or not to take the chance of paying.
Ransomware is on the rise and so it seems that more of us are at risk than before. It is smart to take a few protective steps if only to keep you from taking weeks to return a call.