Preventing ransomware viruses

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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) A ransomware attack temporarily blocked a Roanoke-area nonprofit from accessing files, renewing attention on ransomware viruses.

Eric Thompson's been in IT for about 17 years, and he says computer remediation -- removing viruses from personal computers -- is one of their top services.

"The point of ransomware is it does not work like a traditional virus that destroys your computer," Thompson, of Advanced Logic Industries, said. "Ransomware actually wants to hold your system hostage for payment."

Ransomware usually makes it to your computer through everyday actions like opening email or clicking web links.

The best deterrents are strong, up-to-date antiviruses and firewalls. Thompson says ransomware is particularly sneaky because it usually lays dormant on a computer for a few days, corrupting current and new files, until it connects to the source and sends you a message demanding money.

Thompson says attackers will ask for anywhere from $500-2,000 per attack, creating a massive industry, worth "a few billion dollars a year."

Roanoke Police detective Jason Moore says when people call police, it's hard for them to get any information from the files.

"They've been so corrupted that there is usually not a whole lot we can do for tracking them back.," Moore said.

And since the hackers are usually overseas -- often in Russia, China, or North Korea -- it's unlikely investigations will lead to arrests or returned money.

As for the question of whether you should pay the ransom, Moore and Thompson agree: there's no guarantee you'll get your files back.

"I have had a lot of people pay it and have some success. And then I've had people pay, and nothing ever happens," Moore said. "Now they have a corrupted computer that doesn't work, and they are out money.

Thompson advises users to also conduct regular back-ups. That way, if you are served a ransom, you can simply wipe clean your computer and restore the more recent clean back-up. You may lose a few days worth of new materials, but you'll save yourself a lot of money and frustration.