Ransomware attacks are making headlines with worrisome frequency. In May, 45% of the fuel supply for the east coast of the United States was disrupted when cybercriminals took Colonial Pipeline's computer network hostage. This latest digital exploit, which created massive commercial and consumer havoc, was international news. Missing from most reporting, however, were the facts that consumers are increasingly targeted as well - and simple steps like maintaining paper and offline backups of important records can greatly reduce the devastation.
As the name suggests, the digital crime called ransomware involves a hostage taking and a demand for ransom. What is taken hostage can vary from personal files on an individual's home computer to everything on a corporation's or government's entire network. The ransom demanded can vary from hundreds to tens of millions of dollars and more. Cybercriminals remotely lock their bounty with encryption, issue payment terms and give promises to unlock and return the digital treasure trove once the ransom is paid.
The best defense is a good offense: consumers should take inventory and proactively preserve their precious keepsakes and important records. Which family photos have irreplaceable memories? And what essential information -- including legal records and wills, tax records, banking and financial records, property records, medical records and other important documents - would be disruptive if lost, not to mention crucial in rebuilding identity or resolving claims or disputes?
With keepsakes and important records inventoried, consumers should follow the 3-2-1 rule for safely storing them. This precautionary practice entails three independent copies of all high-priority documents. First, keep a physical paper version on file and ready when you need it. This is especially critical for documents such as wills, property records and other legal documents because copies often are considered invalid under the law. Keeping paper copies in a fireproof home safe or bank safety deposit box provides an added layer of security. Second, back data up to a secure cloud storage provider, which can be free or very inexpensive and will prevent data loss. And third, save an offline digital copy on a storage device, like a high-capacity USB drive, which is quite inexpensive compared to the value of the data being protected.
Ransomware can impact consumers both directly and indirectly. In the first instance, an individual's own computer or other digital and connected devices are compromised. In the second scenario, consumers can suffer collateral damage when institutions they transact business with are victimized. In either case, having a multi-tiered backup system in place provides the safety, security and option of not having to pay the ransom, and the peace of mind that important data will not be lost if any ransom is not ultimately honored. Having paper records handy also offers an irrefutable way to resolve payment or other types of disputes with service providers whose records have been compromised.
With ransomware attacks exploding as a lucrative criminal enterprise, it might only be a matter of time before you are targeted directly -- or inconvenienced indirectly when an institution you do business with is exploited. As Keep Me Posted (KMP) recently reported, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning that every form of digital fraud and abuse, from ransomware to identity theft, is exploding. Malware and computer exploits increased an astronomical 2,684% in just the last three years, while the privacy and data security subcategory recorded an astonishing 152,967% increase in incidents from 2019 to 2020.
With these alarming trends accelerating out of control, the real and widespread harms validate the concerns about digital crimes expressed by eight in 10 consumers surveyed by Keep Me Posted (KMP) and reinforce the reasons why all service providers should offer customers the option of paper transactions, free of charge. But as governments and companies remove choices, charge paper fees and dangerously force consumers into digital-only communications without consent, it becomes more important by the day that everyone takes steps to proactively safeguard their keepsakes and vital records before they are victimized.