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Consumer Reports: How to protect yourself from ransomware attacks

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Imagine hackers holding your computer files hostage and then demanding money to get them back. It's called ransomware.

In Texas, 23 towns are being held hostage by hackers demanding ransom payments to unlock computer systems. Baltimore and Atlanta have also been hit with ransomware, along with hospitals and other businesses. Hackers also have their eyes on home users and even information technology experts can be victims. But as Consumer Reports explains, there are some easy ways to prevent becoming a victim of ransomware.

Raul Glasgow is a computer consultant who is all too familiar with ransomware. Not only has he helped clients whose files were held hostage by hackers, he also had to help himself.

“After, like, the first attack, I’m, like, 'We’re ready for them. You know, there’s no way they’re going to get through to us again,'" he said, laughing. "Was I wrong.”

Glasgow said he started seeing ransomware attacks against his clients two or three years ago. Since then, he said, it’s become even more common. 

"If you are a victim of ransomware, you will see a pop-up window on your computer screen. It will say, 'All your files have been locked and to get them back, you’re going to have to pay a ransom,'" said Consumer Reports' Jerry Beilinson. "We suggest that you not click on the window, unless you are willing to pay."

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First, Consumer Reports says to make sure it’s not just a phony pop-up. Close your browser and, if it comes back, then you may have an issue. 

"If you have a recent backup of your data, you probably won't need to pay the ransom," Beilinson said. "But if you don’t have recent backup, you very well have to pay the ransom in order to get your files back."

If you do have a backup, you can transfer your files to a clean computer. Or you may be able to rebuild your system. A computer professional can help with this if you don't have the skills yourself.

And to make it harder for hackers to gain access to your computer, according to experts at Consumer Reports, keep your operating system and all software, including security software, up-to-date. Even better, turn on automatic updates so you don’t have to think about it.

Consumer Reports urges using preventative measures and says to read any pop-up very carefully before clicking, even on a trusted website.