The list of ransomware victims has grown to include financialinstitutions, hospitals, government departments, school districts,businesses and even law enforcement agencies.

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Ransomware attacks are especially destructive – in a typicalattack, cybercriminals encrypt precious data files and refuse torelease them until payment is received. Mainly delivered throughspam or phishing emails, the malware renders computer systems,devices or files inaccessible, and holds the victim hostage untilthey make the payment, usually in the form of bitcoins.

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In March 2016, 93% of phishing scams distributed ransomware,according to research from the Leesburg, Va.-based PhishMe. TheSunnyvale, Calif.-based security firm Proofpoint's analysis offirst quarter 2016 threats and trends revealed ransomware vaulted into thetop ranks of the most preferred malware by cybercriminals. Nearlyone-quarter of document attachment-based email attacks in the firstquarter featured the new Locky ransomware.

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“Victims are faced with the choice of paying up or losing alltheir valuable data forever. Unfortunately, this approach works forcybercriminals, because consumers and businesses are unprepared fortheir data, whether it's a business' intellectual property orfamily photos, to be taken from them with no hope of retrievalunless they pay,” Usman Choudhary, chief product officer at theReston, Va.-based ThreatTrack Security, said. “Understandably,nearly one in three security professionals at companies say they'dbe willing to pay for the safe recovery of stolen or encrypteddata, and that number jumps to 55% at organizations that havealready been targeted. Meanwhile, your average home user feels asif they have no choice but to pay.”

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No one is immune, not even law enforcement officials. Last year,a Massachusetts police department paid $500 to cyberextortioniststo decrypt its files. The FFIEC and FBI both issued recent alertsabout ransomware.

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In addition, in newly-identified ransomware incidents, somecybercriminals did not use emails.

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FBI Cyber Division Assistant Director James Trainor said, “Thesecriminals have evolved over time and now bypass the need for anindividual to click on a link. They do this by seeding legitimatewebsites with malicious code, taking advantage of unpatchedsoftware on end-user computers.”

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What can organizations do to protect themselves? ThreatTrack'sVIPRE antivirus team provided five tips to help preventcybercriminals from getting a hold of data:

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1. Back up data. External hard drives, whichkeep dropping in price and growing in capacity, offer an affordableway to back up information. There are also numerous cloud-basedoptions for automatically backing up data to offsite servers suchas Carbonite, CrashPlan and Mozy. They store data in the cloud, soin addition to helping to recover data after a ransomware attack,the cloud backup protects information in the event of a physicaldisaster such as a fire, flood, tornado or earthquake.

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2. Get on a schedule. Backing up data isimportant, but so is knowing when the last backup occurred.ThreatTrack recommended backing up data at least once a week and,ideally, once a day.

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3. Be aware of phishing emails. Stay educated andkeep employees informed on the latest social engineering tacticsused to lure people into clicking on malicious links andattachments. Simply sending out regular communications about thevarious tactics and terms — spam, malware, spear-phishing, whaling— helps staff become more vigilant about identifying phishingattempts. Online tutorials and security awareness training servicescan also help.

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4. Practice safe computing and update software.Ransomware authors often exploit vulnerabilities in popularsoftware applications. Keeping those applications up to dateminimizes the exposure to potential attacks. Commonly targetedapplications include Adobe Reader, Adobe Flash, Java, GoogleChrome, iTunes, Skype and Firefox.

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5. Separate work data and files from personal data andfiles. A January ThreatTrack Security survey showed nearlyone-third of IT security staff were asked to remove malware from anexecutive's computer/device because they had let a family memberuse it. With so many people working from home, it can be hard toseparate work from personal life, but keeping the two worldsseparate can go a long way in protecting data and minimizingcyberrisks.

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