CRYPTOLOCKER AND OTHER MALWARE

The purpose of this article is primarily how to protect yourself from an extremely sophisticated malware attack that hijacks your files and is being actively developed to avoid detection and tracing. More on that later. However, with the impending end of support for Windows XP and the continual problems with Windows programs making your computer vulnerable to such attacks, maybe the time has come for you to re-evaluate your computer needs. You can either continue down the path of the Windows headache (which I will show you how to virtually eliminate if you are willing to learn a few things), or you can get an iPad (or even Android) tablet or Apple computer and leave your Windows problems behind.

Of course, I also highly recommend that you borrow a relative’s or friend’s iPad or tablet before you decide to purchase one and make sure it is right for you. Replacing your Windows PC with an Apple computer is also a great alternative but it will be expensive, as you will also need to purchase software. However, an iPad (or Android tablet) is all that most people really need - myself included if it wasn’t for needing Windows Excel and Access to maintain this website. For several hundred dollars you can purchase a tablet save yourself a TON of grief and also have a more fun device.

I am not one to make such draconian recommendations lightly. However, we are in an era of very sophisticated Windows attacks. AND, there seems to be no shortage of Windows vulnerabilities for the hackers to use to make your life miserable.

Imagine this, happening with greater frequency every day……

You turn on your computer and there is a message on the screen: Your files have been encrypted and you have 72 hours to pay two Bitcoins (currently almost $1000 as I write this) or your files will be lost forever. Is this a hoax? Well, probably not, you have the Cryptolocker malware. But what happens if I can’t respond in 72 hours? I don’t know anything about Bitcoins or MoneyPaks, you say. No problem, you will receive a message that it will just take 10 Bitcoins to get your data back and there is no time limit. This is happening now with the CryptoLocker malware that is spreading quickly. Before you pay your Bitcoins, just be aware that there is a chance it may require a LOT more work to get your files back, and you may not have the expertise. As an example, for your files to be unencrypted, an “unlock key” is used along with an encrypted key on your computer, and the site that provides this to you once you pay your money may have been shut down. Or perhaps Microsoft or your AV program might have erased the encrypted key on your computer. No problem, the hackers have this covered and will be able to help you, but the price is now TEN BITCOINS (currently almost $5000!). Of course, if your files are securely backed up (or if you don’t care if you lose your files), you don’t really care….you just reformat your drive and reinstall your image.

But, won’t my AntiVirus (AV) program protect me? Short answer, No. First, the hackers test their product against AV programs. As a result, even the most advanced consumer AV programs catch at most 30% of new malware. Second, malware such as CryptoLocker are extremely well done. Not only do they evade detection, but they are so well designed that they are evading authorities capabilities to track them down. Third, the creators of CryptoLocker are actively developing their product so that it easily evade almost all attempts to detect it until it infects your system. You may have heard of some “tricks” to protect against CryptoLocker, but all of these tricks are easily evaded by slightly modifying the way CryptoLocker works.

And, CryptoLocker is likely just the tip of the iceberg of an expected avalanche of malware.

If you are willing to become just a little more of a computer geek, there are some (relatively) simple things you can do to protect yourself. Note that “relatively simple” for some may be impossible for others. All the more reason to get an iPad. Here is what you need to do:

  1. Make an Image backup of your C: drive and store offline. Keep a “known good” copy. Also, you may want to keep updated image versions as you add additional programs or update Windows and other program. There are free programs included in Windows 7 and 8 that will make images. There are also free and pay third-party programs for making images. Some are easier to use than others.
  2. Backup your important files, pictures, etc to an external drive that you DON’T routinely connect to your computer. As an added measure, consider also backing up these files to a cloud provider that does NOT show up as a drive letter on your computer. (You can elect to only do this step and not the first step, making an image. However, if you get infected, you are faced with the major time-consuming task of manually installing Windows and all your programs.)
  3. Keep all your programs and drivers updated.
  4. Get rid of Java entirely unless there is a known reason why you need it. If your financial site requires Java, consider moving your $ from them as they obviously do not have much regard for their customer’s security.
  5. Install and learn how to use Sandboxie. I have been preaching about Sandboxie for Windows users for years. Run ALL of your programs in Sandboxie that require Internet access (at least run your Internet Browser and Email client in Sandboxie). Note that this requires you learn how to get files and updates OUT of Sandboxie, lest you lose them on reboot. Sandboxie PREVENTS Cryptolocker and other malware from infecting your files, potentially saving you hundreds if not thousands of dollars and a lot of frustration and time. I have verified that this works. Cryptolocker will make an encrypted copy of your files and store them within Sandboxie, but your “real” files are safe on your hard drive. Just delete the Cyberlocker-encrypted files within Sandboxie like you would delete anything else you don’t want within Sandboxie.

Your choice. An iPad or a bit of learning and preparation. Doing what you are doing now WILL bite you sooner or later.