What is Ransomware?

Another wave of Ransomware has been in the headlines recently, taking over the computers of large corporations, small businesses, and regular people alike.  But what exactly is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of Malicious Software (“malware”) that gains access to a computer, encrypts files, and offers to decrypt them… for a cost.  Let’s go through each of these steps.

  1. How does Ransomware gain access to a computer?

    Ransomware uses the same tricks that other malware uses to gain access.  Usually, you will receive a file or a link in an email that installs the Ransomware program on your computer.  This might look like a spreadsheet, or a picture, but is actually the malware.

  2. What is encryption?

    Encryption is like a locked safe – I may know that information is inside, but I can’t see it without a key.  A simple example of encryption is a Caesar Cypher.  The encryption used by Ransomware programs is much more complex, and cannot be undone without the password.

  3. What is decryption?

    Decryption is the undoing of encryption.  When you put the key/password into a decryption program, it can take the previously unreadable data and return it to readable information.

  4. How do they offer to pay?

    Most Ransomware programs will show a screen that explains that your computer has been locked, and that you can unlock it for a fee.  Sometimes this will appear to look like an antivirus program, and sometimes it identified itself as Ransomware.

    The most common way to pay the ransom is through the cryptocurrency called Bitcoin.  We’ll have a future articles on Bitcoin later, but for today let’s just think of it as online money.  You can purchase Bitcoin from several places online, then you will transfer it to the owners of the Ransomware.  Unfortunately for law enforcement, this is a difficult process to trace.

    Once you have paid the ransom, the Ransomware owners will provide a password that is used to decrypt the files on your computer.

  5. How can I protect myself from Ransomware?

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (literally in the UK).  Be careful when clicking on links or opening attachments in emails.  Backup important files on an external hard drive or online service that isn’t always connected to your computer.  If your hard drive is connected when Ransomware infects your computer, it may encrypt the external drive as well.


Ransomware can cost time, money, or lost business if not prevented.  Hopefully this gives you a little more knowledge about what Ransomware is, and how to protect yourself against it.

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