(MoneyWatch) Think getting infected with a garden variety virus is a nightmare? Then try on some ransomware for size. Security and antivirus companies agree that it's a growing threat.
Ransomware is one of the most disturbing trends in malware today. Once infected with the malware, your PC typically locks you out of most -- if not all -- features unless you agree to pay a ransom demand -- sometimes diguised as a fee, sometimes explicitly identified as a ransom, complete with a digital ransom note.
"FakeAV is one of the most visible signs of the problem," says Roel Schouwenberg, senior anti-virus researcher at Kaspersky. After a casual inspection, you might conclude that FakeAV is a legitimate antivirus warning, but the software keeps you from using your PC unless you pay a fee to remove alleged malware.
And criminals are getting bolder: According to Symmatec's report Ransomware: A Growing Menace, some users are getting actual ransom letters to regain access to their PCs. And a significant number of users are paying up, emboldening the criminals to continue the gambit.
According to TechWorld, ransom demands to businesses are growing as well, with one report citing 30 hits on Australian companies last month alone. One company reportedly paid about $3,000 to receive a PIN to recover mission critical files.
How can you protect yourself from ransomware?
First of all, if you're hit, security experts agree that you should not pay. Not only does it reward and encourage this kind of criminal activity, but it's no guarantee that you'll get access to your PC.
There are tools available to undo most forms of malware, including ransomware. Use another PC to search for a solution, and boot your affected PC into Safe Mode to clean the system. Be sure to only use guidance from reputable companies like Microsoft, Kaspersky, and Symantec (to name a few) so you don't stumble into additional malware posing as a solution.
Protect yourself up front. Be sure your PC is running up-to-date anti-malware software. And whatever you think about Windows 8, you should be aware that a new feature in Windows 8 allows compatible antimalware software to load first at startup, before malware has a chance to run. This additional protection can be key to preventing infection.
Photo courtesy Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski