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Local experts advise on how to avoid malware

There's a new virus that's infecting homes and businesses across the country: Cryptolocker.
Cryptolocker is a form of malware, said Don McCombie, the president of the Westminster-based firm NoWorriesIT. Cryptolocker is typically hidden in an attachment from an email address that looks secure. McCombie said he's heard of it typically coming from an email address that looks like those of shipping companies such as FedEx, UPS or DHL.
The email typically says there is a package that can't be delivered and to open the attachment for further information. The attachment, while it looks like a PDF, is truly an executable file which launches a program and encrypts the data, he said.
When the data is encrypted it scrambles the information so no one is able to read it, he said. It then comes up with a message that if you want to decrypt the data, you must pay a sum of money.
"It's typical in the terms of malware, in terms of its annoyance, but the difference is it literally will destroy your data to the point where there is no recovery," he said.
Malware, which is short for malicious software, includes any number of computer viruses, Trojan horses, worms, spyware and the like. It is used to get access to a computer system and often to gather sensitive information.
Dan Brown, of Frederick-based Swift Systems, said while viruses tend to infect local, state and federal government agencies, malware is more prevalent in commercial businesses and the private sector.
"Malware is more concerned with getting people's money than ruining your computer," he said.
McCombie said while paying the ransom for encrypted data can bring back the information, it does not mean that it necessarily will.
"What we don't really know is that traces are left behind - is this thing going to come up again and will it ask for another $300 in a week?" he said.
As with most other problems in the IT world, McCombie recommended a simple solution: Back up your data. If a person or business backs up often, the machine could be cleaned and the data could be restored from a backup. So while it's an annoyance, years of photos or business transactions won't be lost forever, he said.
The best prevention is to be "1,000 percent sure that any email attachment you click on is something you're expecting to receive," he said.
Brown, the technical services manager at Swift Systems, said what most securities companies have found is that businesses that stop malware on the network side, rather than from educating each computer user, are more successful. Businesses that have Internet access policies and content filtering can keep most malware from infiltrating the system, he said.
"Obviously, there are software tools," he said. "It's like going to Baskin-Robbins, you can pick your flavor of anti-malware."
McCombie said the best prevention is to stop the malware from running in the first place, which means a person shouldn't open suspicious attachments.
The malware is written for a Windows computer, meaning Mac users can rejoice in the knowledge that it will not automatically open the file. McCombie said that a Mac would likely redirect back to the user to ask which program to open it with, which should be a huge indicator.
Brown said those who create malware are similar to anyone buying and selling drugs or guns on the black market - it comes down to dollars and cents.
"It's really become a line of business for some unethical people out there," he said.

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