MTE Explains: Ransomware and Its Comeback

In the late 90s there was a time when you would probably be met with that one download that completely ruined your computer and forced you to reinstall your operating system. Some of these downloaded applications went as far as to lock you out of your computer partially or completely and ask you for a sum of money to restore everything to the way it was. Malware takes many different forms, but some argue that the worst kind is ransomware, an old method of extorting money from individuals, a method that started falling out of favor until recently. It has since made a comeback.


It’s in the name, really. Ransomware holds your computer hostage and asks for ransom money to give it back to you. It will lock you out of certain features that leave you, at best, with a computer that works halfway. At worst, you’ll end up with nothing more than a fancy brick on your desk until you’ve ponied up the cash. Some of the software rubs your nose in it further by pointing you to a “support forum” meant to help you make the payment. You can already see how this can become very annoying.

This all disappeared in the early 2000s, and we were hoping to never see it again. Unfortunately, hackers don’t share that sentiment. Ransomware has been making a comeback, and according to the BBC, it is a very profitable market. Unlike most viruses, which quietly turn your system into a drone for some hackers, ransomware has a strong financial incentive. It is tempting for hackers to start branching out into a market, and this presents an opportunity. I’d say that its return was inevitable.

To effectively infect someone’s computer with ransomware, it has to be executed. That means that the victim must purposely, voluntarily open it. Would you do that, knowing what awaits you? Of course not! This is why they lie. The key to spreading any kind of malware is deception. Ransomware can pose as any type of software. Back in the 90s it mostly took the form of a fake antivirus program. These days hackers have gotten more creative and injected it into very innocuous and seemingly harmless pieces of software that seem to pose some utility. Among piracy circles, this kind of software is rampant.

Once the program has been executed on your computer, it will begin advertising a “solution” to the problems it’s causing. In the case of ransomware, the solution is a sum of money sent from PayPal or your credit card. More savvy individuals who are afraid of being robbed by giving away their financial information will opt to format their systems and start from scratch. That’s not always an option, however, since you may possess some very important files. In this case, my suggestion is to run a “LiveCD” distribution of Linux, and copy all of the data you need onto a USB drive or other supplementary hardware before formatting. At the end of the day, once you’re infected, you have very few options, and formatting might be the only way out.

It’s safe to assume that this kind of malware is something you personally would want to avoid like the plague. On that note, I have one central piece of advice: Scrutinize everything. Ransomware is spread often through messaging attachments, “direct” download links for “free” copyrighted software, and a plethora of other web links. Although they are not often sent via email, you should be suspicious of unwarranted emails (even from people you know) containing attachments. As long as you do that, you are 99.999999% safe. Ransomware prays on the unaware. Just keep your eyes peeled and be as prudent and suspicious as possible when encountering unknown or non-trustworthy sites (if you can’t avoid them by all means).

Do you have any interesting ransomware stories? Share them in a comment!