How can you protect yourself against ‘ransomware’ attacks?

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – It sounds like something out of a high-tech thriller — unknown cyber spies from another country take over your computer in Youngstown.

But it’s not a Hollywood dream. It’s real life, and it’s happening right now. These programs let cyber criminals take control of your computer.

The criminals target files like tax returns and family pictures. They lock them away, unless you pay up.

Over the weekend, a worldwide “ransomware” cyberattack hit companies and governments. The outbreak paralyzed computers running banks, government agencies and transport systems.

Youngstown State University was hit with a similar ransomware attack, which seized control of a machine and locked away its files. A message on the computer read, "We've encrypted all of your files, and if you want this data back, it will cost...

“You click a suspicious link in an email or you click an advertisement you shouldn’t or you go to a website you shouldn’t and you download these pieces of malware that start infecting you,” said Nick Merker, with the cybersecurity law firm, Ice Miller.

Youngstown State University was hit with a similar ransomware attack in 2015, which seized control of a machine and locked away its files. A message on the computer read, “We’ve encrypted all of your files, and if you want this data back, it will cost you…”

The university’s security engineer, Michael Hancharenko, said the tech department downloaded a copy of the ransomware program. They then broke it down, learned how it worked and were able to rescue the computer.

Hancharenko said computer users often have no idea that their computer has been infected by a virus.

“It’s usually a matter of minutes to hours before the contents of the drive are encrypted. The user doesn’t know any better. They’ve moved on and all of a sudden, they get a splash screen on their desktop,” he said.

YSU’s IT Department was able to beat the malware but for many businesses, that isn’t an option.

“Local businesses aren’t going to have that kind of money to invest in THH technology,” Hancharenko said.

Merker said sometimes companies have to pay up to tens of thousands of dollars.

“If your patient data is encrypted, you’re not going to be able to help a patient that is in need of care. So that’s why I think some hospitals are paying to get the data back as quickly as possible.”

There are ways to protect yourself from hackers. Don’t open emailed attachments from anyone unless you know for sure what’s in it and make backups of your files to physical hard drives.

“Do your backup. When the backup is complete, unplug it from the computer. It’s a perfect solution,” said Christopher Wentz, security officer at YSU.

It’s important to backup your computer before it becomes infected. Otherwise, you’re just backing up the ransomware, too.

Wentz said the threats have only increased.

“We see, on average per month, into the tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of attempts.”Related coverage: 5 ways to become a smaller target for ransomware hackersEditor’s note: The ransomware attack at YSU and the software the IT department demonstrated in this story are from 2015. Youngstown State University was not impacted by the malicious attacks May 13 and 14.

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