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Ransomware, malware are evolving – what to do if you become a victim

Ransomware and malware are evolving, creating new threats. This means what worked last year may not work this year, so here is what you can do (besides panic) if you become a victim.

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New threats mean brushing up on new protections

Malware can be nasty for many reasons, the most obvious is that it can slow down your computer or make it vulnerable for other tools to infect your system.

At its worst it’s nothing more than a heavy spam tool, but at its best you end up with something a little closer to ransomware.

Ransomware – if you’re not already familiar – is a type of malware that holds your computer hostage. It restricts access to certain apps, system tools, or websites and then demands the user pay a fee (ransom) to have the malware removed.

For advanced users, ransomware is a nuisance and requires an hour or two – and special tools – to remove.

For casual users, ransomware can be downright horrifying. Especially, since some of the tactics used by these infections are intimidating.

For example, many forms of ransomware will lock you out of your computer, or the add/remove programs panel so that you cannot remove it the easy way. The most dangerous ransomware can encrypt your personal files – or hide them – so you cannot access the content until you pay the ransom.

Personal files affected can be anything from important business or tax documents to personal photos and videos.

As you’ve no doubt realized by now, ransomware is not something you want to encounter, but it happens – even to the most tech literate of folks. And it doesn’t help that it’s on the rise either.

There’s a lot you can do to prevent it, but in the event your computer is seized by ransomware, there are steps you can take to remove it, as well. If you do find yourself face to face with an infected computer, it’s important not to panic, and be sure to review the resources we have provided below.

How do computers get infected?

Because ransomware is a form of malware, it can infect computers in the same way.

  • Download: Most people think they are safe if they don’t download files or content often but that’s not necessarily true. One of the most common ways for malware and ransomware to get onto a computer is that it’s downloaded by one of the users. This can even be done unknowingly, after you click a malicious advertisement, link, or even interact with a pop-up.
  • Exploits: This type of infection is less common, but it does happen. Some malware can infect machines by getting past security vulnerabilities in apps, virus software, or the operating system. The most common form of exploit infection comes from web browsers and web applications such as Flash.
  • Email: With email infections, you still need to click on a link or download a file. That is why you should always be careful when opening emails – especially from people you don’t know. Regardless, hackers can embed an infected file or link in an email that attacks as soon as you interact with it.
  • Phishing: Phishing is when hackers create a web form or site that looks identical to an official one. You access the site by accident by following an email or web link and are tricked into submitting your login details and personal info. These types of sites can also be used to trick you into downloading ransomware after you let your guard down thinking they are safe to browse.

How to protect yourself and your computer

One the best ways to protect yourself from malware and ransomware is preventative maintenance. That is, you should be carrying out these tasks on a regular basis before something happens.

  1. Create Data Backups: Whether you backup your personal or business related content to a cloud account or another local drive matters little. Heck, if you have the opportunity do both. What matters is that you are making frequent backups, especially of your important documents. In the event your computer is infected by ransomware, you will likely lose some amount of data so it’s best to have everything backed up. This also protects you from the occasional hardware failure too, which is known to happen.
  2. Keep Everything Up-to-Date: You’ll want to keep all your applications, operating systems, security tools, and anything else you use up-to-date (especially your web browser). Not only does this take care of bugs and performance issues, but also security problems that developers patch out.
  3. Secure Your Computer: Use anti-virus and malware software to protect your computer from harm. As mentioned in the step above, always keep your security tools up-to-date, as well.
  4. Avoid Suspicious Links, Ads, and Attachments: Sometimes, you make a mistake and click on the wrong page element or open an attachment you didn’t mean to. It happens to the best of us. Still, you should always do what you can to avoid anything suspicious. Avoid emails with attachments from people you don’t know. Double check emails for phishing links even if it’s a company you trust. Avoid suspicious websites, especially ones that use pop-up ads. Most importantly, just use common sense to avoid bad areas of the internet.

Under no circumstances should you ever pay money to remove ransomware or malware. If you don’t know what to do, enlist help from a professional.

There is no guarantee the malware author will restore your computer, files, or apps even after you pay. They may even try to extort more money out of you if you do so.

What to do when you get infected

If your computer has been infected, do the following immediately:

  1. Disconnect your computer from the network or disable internet access. This will prevent the infection from spreading. It will also prevent the ransomware from making things worse in some cases.
  2. If you have a recent system restore point – from before the malware appeared, obviously – then give that a try. If you have recent backups of your data, then just format your operating system and conduct a clean reinstall of Windows. Many people choose not to do this, but it’s really the best – and safest – option.
  3. Boot into safe mode and run your anti-virus software to remove the infection. Most virus tools include an option to conduct a boot scan, which will remove infected content before booting into Windows. Use this option if it’s available.
  4. Download the EMSIsoft Emergency Kit scanner on another computer and move it to a portable flash drive. Important:Before using the tool on the infected computer, run it on a computer that has internet accessso it can update the database.
  5. If your files were encrypted or hidden by the ransomware – use this site to identify what type of malware you encountered. Once you identify the malware, you can find a decrypting tool to restore your files or locked data.

Are there any other tools I can use?

Alternate tools to fight off a computer infection include:

#FightRansomware

Megan Ray Nichols is an editorialist at The American Genius, and is a technical writer who's passionate about technology and the science. She also regularly writes at Smart Data Collective, IoT Times, and ReadWrite. Megan publishes easy to understand articles on her blog, Schooled By Science - subscribe today for weekly updates!

Tech News

Chatbots: Are they still useful, or ready to be retired?

(TECH NEWS) Chatbots have proven themselves to be equally problematic as they are helpful – is it time to let them go the way of the floppy disk?

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Man texting chatbots leaning against a brick wall.

All chatbots must die. I’d like to say it was fun while it lasted, but was it really?

I understand the appeal, truly. It’s a well established 21st century business mantra for all the side hustlers and serial entrepreneurs out there: “Automation is the key to scaling.” If we can save time, labor, and therefore money by automating systems, that means we have more time to build our brands and sell our goods and services.

Automation makes sense in many ways, but not all automation tools were created equal. While many tools for automation are extremely effective and useful, chatbots have been problematic from the start. Tools for email marketing, social media, internal team communication, and project management are a few examples of automation that have helped many a startup or other small business kick things into high gear quickly, so that they can spend time wooing clients and raising capital. They definitely have their place in the world of business.

However promising or intriguing chatbots seemed when they were shiny and new, they have lost their luster. If we have seen any life lesson in 2020, it is that humans are uniquely adept at finding ways to make a mess of things.

The artificial intelligence of most chatbots has to be loaded, over time, into the system, by humans. We try to come up with every possible customer-business interaction to respond to with the aim of being helpful. However, language is dynamic, interactive, with near infinite combinations, not to mention dialects, misspellings, and slang.

It would take an unrealistic amount of time to be able to program a chatbot to compute, much less reply to, all possible interactions. If you don’t believe me, consider your voice-activated phone bot or autocorrect spelling. It doesn’t take a whole lot to run those trains off the rails, at least temporarily. There will always be someone trying to confuse the bots, to get a terse, funny, or nonsensical answer, too.

Chatbots can work well when you are asking straightforward questions about a single topic. Even then, they can fall short. A report by AI Multiple showed that some chatbots were manipulated into expressing agreement with racist, violent, or unpatriotic (to China, where they were created) ideas. Others, like CNN and WSJ, had problems helping people unsubscribe from their messages.

Funny, shocking, or simply unhelpful answers abound in the world of chatbot fails. People are bound to make it messy, either accidentally or on purpose.

In general, it feels like the time has come to put chatbots out to pasture. Here are some helpful questions from azumbrunnen.me to help you decide when it’s worth keeping yours.

  1. Is the case simple enough to work on chatbot? Chatbots are good with direct and short statements and requests, generally. However, considering that Comcast’s research shows at least 1,700 ways to say “I want to pay my bill,” according to Netomi, the definition of “simple enough” is not so simple.
  2. Is your Natural Language Processor capable and sophisticated enough? Pre-scripted chatbots are often the ones to fail more quickly than chatbots built with an NLP. It will take a solid NLP to deal with the intricacies of conversational human language.
  3. Are your users in chat based environments? If so, then it could be useful, as you are meeting your customers where they are. Otherwise, if chatbots pop up whenever someone visits your website or Facebook page, it can really stress them out or turn them off.

I personally treat most chatbots like moles in a digital whack-a-mole game. The race is on to close every popup as quickly as possible, including chatbots. I understand that from time to time, in certain, clearly defined and specific scenarios, having a chatbot field the first few questions can help direct the customer to the correct person to resolve their problems or direct them to FAQs.

They are difficult to program within the expansiveness of the human mind and human language, though, and a lot of people find them terribly annoying. It’s time to move on.

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Tech News

Get all your digital organization in one place with Routine

(TECH NEWS) Routine makes note-taking and task-creating a lot easier by merging all your common processes into one productivity tool.

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A desk with a laptop, notepad, smartphone, and cup of coffee settled into an organized routine.

Your inbox can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. Without organization, important emails with tasks, notes, and meetings can become a trash pile pretty quickly. Luckily, there are a lot of tools that aim to help you improve your efficiency, and the latest to add to that list is Routine.

Routine is a productivity app that combines your tasks, notes, and calendar into one easy-to-use app so you can increase your performance. Instead of having to switch between different apps to jot down important information, create to-do lists, and glance at your calendar, Routine marries them all into one cool productivity tool. By simply using a keyboard shortcut, you can do all these things.

If you receive an email that contains an actionable item, you can convert that email into a task you can view later. Tasks are all saved in your inbox, and you can even schedule a task for a specific day. So, if Obi-Wan wants to have Jedi lessons on Thursday, you can schedule your Force task for that day. Likewise, chat messages that need follow-up can also be converted into tasks and be scheduled.

To enrich your tasks, notes can be attached to them. In your notes, you can also embed checkboxes, which are tasks of their own. And if you have tasks that aren’t coming from your inbox, you can import them from other services, such as Gmail, Notion, and Trello.

To make sure you can stay focused on the events and tasks at hand, Routine makes it easy to take everything in. By using the tool’s keyboard-controlled console, you can access your dashboard to quickly see what tasks need to be addressed, what’s on your calendar, and even join an upcoming Zoom session and take notes about the meeting.

Routine is available for macOS, iOS, web, and Google accounts only. Overall, the app centralizes notes and tasks by letting you create and view everything in one place, which helps make sure you stay on top of things. Currently, Routine is still in beta, but you can get on a waitlist to test the product out for yourself.

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Tech News

The paradox of CAPTCHAs: Too smart for humans vs AI?

(TECH NEWS) AI is catching up to our cybersecurity technology and often tricking humans too — so what’s next for CAPTCHAs and the internet?

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Person using phone with laptop to verify CAPTCHAs and code.

We’ve all encountered it before: The occasional robot test that feels impossible to beat. If you’ve felt like these tests, also known as CAPTCHAs, have gotten harder in the last couple of years, you aren’t wrong—and the reason is as ironic as it is baffling.

Simply put, AI are just as good as—and often better than—humans at completing CAPTCHAs in their classic format. As machine learning and AI become more advanced, the fundamental human attributes that make consistent CAPTCHA formats possible become less impactful, raising the question of how to determine the difference between AI and humans in the future.

The biggest barrier to universal CAPTCHA doctrine is purely cultural. Humans may share experiences across the board, but such experiences are typically basic enough to fall victim to the same machine learning which has rendered lower-level CAPTCHAs moot. Adding a cultural component to CAPTCHAs could prevent AI from bypassing them, but it also might prevent some humans from understanding the objective.

Therein lies the root of the CAPTCHA paradox. Humans are far more diverse than any one test can possibly account for, and what they do have in common is also shared by—you guessed it—AI. To create a truly AI-proof test would be to alienate a notable portion of human users by virtue of lived experience. The irony is palpable, but one can only imagine the sheer frustration developers are going through in attempting to address this problem.

But all isn’t lost. While litmus tests such as determining the number of traffic cones in a plaza or checking off squares with bicycles (but not unicycles, you fool) may be beatable by machines, some experts posit that “human entropy” is almost impossible to mimic—and, thus, a viable solution to the CAPTCHA paradox.

“A real human being doesn’t have very good control over their own motor functions, and so they can’t move the mouse the same way more than once over multiple interactions,” says Shuman Ghosemajumder, a former click fraud expert from Google. While AI could attempt to feign this same level of “entropy”, the odds of a successful attempt appear low.

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