How to avoid attack that has crippled 200,000 computers in more than 150 countries

The cyber attack that began capturing the world’s attention Friday has crippled about 200,000 computers in more than 150 countries, the security agency Europol said Sunday. It has become the most widespread hacking incident in history, experts said.

Here are some essential facts for you the consumer, including information on how to avoid becoming a victim of the same digital assault — which is still continuing.

Could the hacking grow? Online security specialists fear the ransomware offensive — in which the hacker(s) basically takes over your computer and demands money before giving control of the machine back to you — will spread even more as office workers return to work Monday. Employees in many countries, especially Asia and Europe, had gone home by the time the malicious hacking software started proliferating.

“At the moment, we’re in the face of an escalating threat, the numbers are going up,” Rob Wainwright, executive director of Interpol, told the British broadcasting network ITV on Sunday. “I’m worried about how the numbers will continue to grow when people go to work and turn their machines on Monday morning.”

* Didn’t some techie stop the attack’s forward march? Yes and no. It’s true that a 22-year-old researcher using the Twitter handle MalwareTech had helped to slow down the cyber assault by accidentally finding the web-domain that can disable the malicious software. But that person and many other cyber experts emphasized Sunday that hackers could easily morph the software and launch a new wave of the attack.

True to their prediction, just hours later, new variants of the software were detected circulating through the internet.

Experts also worry about copycats using the current global attention to mount their own assaults in coming days.

* What countries have been directly affected? They include Britain, China, Russia, India, Mexico, Spain, Taiwan, Ukraine, Romania, Egypt, Iran, Brazil, Italy, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Tanzania, the Philippines, Argentina, South Africa — in other words, the list is long and getting longer. The United States has been impacted relatively less, although FedEx was one of the major names hit by the attack. Other victims have ranged from banks, Russia’s interior ministry, Britain’s nationalized health system to TV stations, universities and the French automaker Renault.

It’s unknown how much ransom money has been paid because of this extortion campaign. One estimate said the amount has been only $32,000, but other analysts said the total could turn out to be in the millions.

* Has the hacker(s) been identified? No person or group has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the attack. One of the greatest frustrations in cybersecurity is that the vast, often shadowy world of online crime makes it nearly impossible to precisely track down hackers. Other complications include the lack of international agreements for how to arrest and prosecute cyber criminals even if they are found. That’s because everyone from governments to political rebels to people simply out to make money are all players in the hacking universe.

We do know that in this latest case, the ransomware has exploited a loophole in the Microsoft Windows operating system. The digital weapon was actually developed by the U.S. National Security Agency, and then it was stolen by a collective of hackers called Shadow Brokers that subsequently made the information available online. Microsoft issued a security patch for the Windows flaw in March, but many people and institutions had not downloaded that fix.

* How can I get my hands on that security patch? Just go to this Microsoft page for official instructions. In addition, experts remind consumers to pay attention to the latest update notices for their desktop computers, laptops, tablets and cellphones.

If your computer is hit with ransomware, your options include paying the requested ransom — something the FBI discourages — and getting your machine “debugged” by a professional.


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