Real Possibilities

February 13-19, 2017

Ransomware threatens personal computers too

By Nan Selz
Executive Council, AARP Arkansas

There’s been a lot of news lately about ransomware attacks on large institutions. One hospital system in California lost its patients’ medical records to a ransom attack and had to pay $17,000 to get them back.

Ransomware can seize control of your personal computer as well as an institutional network. When it does, it encrypts your computer’s files making them inaccessible to you until you pay a ransom to have them released.

The FBI received 2,500 complaints about ransomware in the first quarter of 2016, ten times the number received in all of 2015. Experts believe that the majority of attacks go unreported and that many of these attacks originate in Eastern Europe. Cyber criminals are constantly developing new kinds of ransomware in order to outsmart security software.

Ransomware can infect your computer when you click on a malicious link or attachment. The malware then locks your computer and displays a message saying the contents have been encrypted and will be held hostage until you pay ransom. If you pay the ransom, you receive an email with a “decryption key” that unlocks the system and releases your files.

If you don’t pay within a stated period of time, the thieves send a countdown clock that gives you a deadline after which the files will be deleted. Ransom for personal computers is usually in the $200 to $800 range, but it can be in the thousands. You must pay in untraceable digital currency called bitcoins.

There are several things you can do to make yourself less likely to be a target for a ransomware attack:

• Back up your files to a hard drive or CD-ROM on a regular basis.

• Use antivirus software and a firewall.

• Update your software and set it to accept security patches.

• Don’t click on emails or attachments you don’t recognize.

• Enable pop-up blockers. Pop-ups can contain malware.

• Don’t accept offers of free games or screen savers unless you know and trust the websites offering them.

• When tracking an order, go to the original source (,, etc.) to track it.

Ransomware attacks are becoming more frequent and more sophisticated. You may be approached through a legitimate-looking email that uses your name or your email address. To avoid ransomware and many other cyber crimes, you should never click on emails or attachments from unfamiliar sources.

To keep up with the latest information on ransomware and other scams, sign up for the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network.

The Fraud Watch Network is on Facebook and on Twitter at #fraudwatch. 


  • Nan Selz
    Nan Selz