A newsletter reader suggested that "While on the subject of security you might mention the new scam called 'CryptoLocker.' An article on that would be a service to your readers, Dick." This is the article. However, it will be a short article as CryptoLocker can be either a huge or a trivial problem, depending upon how well prepared you are.
CryptoLocker is a form of Trojan Horse known as ransomware. "Trojan Horses" are quite different from viruses but have the same goal: to create havoc inside your computer. After being installed on a Windows system -- usually following the opening of a malicious email -- CryptoLocker takes control of the user's system and locks up almost all data files (.DOC, .XLS, .JPG, and many more file types).
Those behind the scam then demand the victim pay up if they want to regain access to the files on their computer. The usual ransom: between $300 and $600 in bitcoins, a relatively new type of Internet-based currency. Although CryptoLocker itself is easily removed by a number of anti-virus programs, files remain locked up in a way that researchers believe are impossible to break. For the unprepared computer user, this can be a huge problem.
In contrast, CryptoLocker is very easy to deal with IF you are making frequent backups. Here is what you must do NOW to prevent future CryptoLocker problems:
- Make sure you are making frequent backups, starting NOW, before your computer becomes infected with the “CryptoLocker” problem. Everyone should do that all the time anyway. Ideally, you should be using some backup program that automatically makes backups every few hours. Only use a backup program that saves ALL VERSIONS of all files. Not all backup programs do that. There are a dozen or more such programs to choose from. (See the note below about backup programs.)
- When you get the CryptoLocker problem, use any up-to-date anti-virus program to delete it. Almost all of today’s Windows anti-virus programs will do that but they probably will not restore access to your files.
- If the anti-virus program does not restore your locked up files, restore those files from your most recent backup. You will be back in business.
Of course, if you don’t make frequent backups before CryptoLocker strikes, you will have problems. Big problems.
Another solution is to use Macintosh, Linux, Android, or Apple's iOS operating systems instead of Windows. CryptoLocker appears to only affect Windows computers.
You can learn more about CryptoLocker at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CryptoLocker.
A Note about Backup Programs
For all true backups and especially for CryptoLocker, you want a real backup program, not a simple file copying program.
A true backup programs backs up and keeps multiple versions of each file. If you are using a simple file copying program, such as Dropbox, every time a file changes the only backed up copy is deleted and then replaced with the new version. This won't provide any protection against CryptoLocker.
Keep in mind that CryptoLocker REPLACES your original file with a new version that is locked up (encrypted) and has the same name. If you are using a simple file copying program to store duplicate copies elsewhere, your backed up file will soon be replaced with the locked up (encrypted) version. That won't provide any protection as your only backed up copy (in Dropbox or elsewhere) will be equally locked up within minutes after the original file is locked up by CryptoLocker.
In contrast, a true backup program keeps copies of ALL VERSIONS of the original file and retains all those versions for an extended period of time.
If using a true backup program instead of a simple file copying program, you can first delete CryptoLocker by using most any modern Windows anti-virus program. Your files will probably still be locked up, however. You can then go back and restore the non-locked up version from yesterday's backup or last week's backup or last month's backup. You won't be able to do that if you have been using a simple file copying program, such as Dropbox. You MUST use a true backup program that keeps many versions of every file.
You can find a list of the major Windows backup programs at http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2278661,00.asp.