What small business owners need to know about ransomware attacks


You're never too small to be the target of a ransomware attack. Learn tips for small business owners.

Ransomware attacks are a lucrative weapon for cybercriminals. 

While cybercriminals earn big headlines when they launch ransomware attacks against giant corporations, government bodies, and other big-name victims, they make plenty of money, too, by targeting smaller victims. It's not unusual for these criminals to hit small business owners and individuals with ransomware attacks. 

In ransomware attacks, hackers infect the computers or devices of victims with malware that prevents these victims from accessing the data and files on their machines. 

The attackers then demand a ransom — often requesting payment through Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency — to release the files that they have locked. Ransom payments are sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions of dollars.

Not all ransomware attacks result in payments that large. But even if a cybercriminal demands a lesser amount from your small business, ransomware attacks are a real threat.  

Hackers can hold your photos, documents, reports, financial information, and any other document you have stored in your computers, phones, or tablets until you pay up or figure out some other way to unlock these files.

It’s smart, then, to learn how to help avoid these attacks and what steps to take if you are victimized by one of them. Ignoring this problem? It won't help. You're never too small to be the target of a ransomware attack. 

Ransomware attacks by the numbers

The U.S. Department of Justice says that about $350 million in ransom money was paid to cybercriminals in 2020. That's a jump of more than 300 percent from 2019. And 2021 looks to be a busy year for ransomware, too. 

The targets of these attacks? The government says that 75 percent of all ransomware attacks are on small businesses, not giant corporations or state or local governments.

There's a reason for this: The Justice Department says that hackers often go after the easiest targets. Many small business owners don't adequately protect their online networks. They don’t have the bigger IT staffs that larger businesses and government bodies boast. That makes them inviting victims for cybercriminals.

This is one reason the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Department of Homeland Security have launched the website StopRansomware.gov. This site is a one-stop hub for ransomware resources for individuals, businesses, and other organizations.

The site's goal is to teach companies, governments, and individuals how to avoid ransomware attacks and give them the resources necessary to report these attacks and respond to them.

How to help protect against ransomware attacks

There are steps you can take to protect your business from ransomware attacks. And you can take these steps even if your business is too small to hire a large staff of IT experts.

Be careful what you click. The first step is to be cautious when clicking on email attachments or links. Hackers often use phishing attacks to trick victims into loading ransomware on their own computers or devices. They do this by sending them emails that might appear to be from a bank, managers at their company, tech providers, or other seemingly legitimate sources.

But when the targets click on a link in these emails or open an attachment, they accidentally flood their computer, phone, or tablet with ransomware.

The best way to avoid ransomware, then, is to never click on links or attachments unless you are absolutely sure that the email message containing them is legitimate. If you get an email supposedly from your boss, don’t click on a link or open an attachment in it. Instead, contact your boss to make sure he or she sent the message.

Install security software. It's important to install reliable security software on your computer, too. This software can keep malware away from your computer and can even block its installation if you click on malicious links or download infected attachments.

Be sure to update. Keep your antivirus software updated. Manufacturers often schedule updates to their antivirus software, patches designed to protect against the latest security threats. If you ignore these updates, you could be exposed to the newest ransomware attacks. It’s a good idea to allow automatic updates.

Back up your files. And another important tip? Regularly back-up your most important files, videos, photos, and documents. If you have a back-up of these key files, you’ll still have access to them even if your computer is locked up by a ransomware attack. Backing up your files is the most important step you can take to protect yourself from ransomware attacks. 

What if you’re the victim of a ransomware attack? 

You’ll know if you’ve been the victim of a ransomware attack because the hackers behind it will contact you. The cybercriminals will demand that you pay a ransom to receive a decryption key that will unlock your frozen files. 

How much these hackers demand will vary, but it will often be in the thousands of dollars. Often, these criminals will demand their ransom in the form of Bitcoin or some other cryptocurrency.

What should you do if you are the victim of a ransomware attack? The FBI does not recommend paying the ransom. As the FBI says, even if you do pay, there's no guarantee that the criminals behind the attack will grant you access to your data. They might take your money and disappear, leaving your computer or other devices in their locked-up state. The FBI also warns that paying the ransom might encourage the hackers to target other victims.

Instead, the FBI recommends that you contact your local FBI field office to request help and that you file a report with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Getting access to your locked files might be challenging.  You could work with IT and security experts to try to recover some. But the most skilled of hackers make this challenging. If you haven’t backed up your files, you might have lost them.

This is why it’s so important to back up your files regularly and to avoid clicking on suspicious links or attachments. Preventing ransomware is far easier than recovering from it.

Cyber threats have evolved, and so have we.

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Dan Rafter
  • Dan Rafter
  • Freelance writer
Dan Rafter is a freelance writer who covers tech, finance, and real estate. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Fox Business.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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