Although these kinds of attacks have become less frequent over the past 2 years, I thought I'd provide some information about what are known as "ransomware" or "cryptolocker" attacks. These malicious applications are employed by anonymous hackers to extract money from their unwitting victims by encrypting (preventing access to) documents, data and images on computers. Unfortunately the attacks are not always 100% preventable, but you can save yourself a lot of hassle by knowing what to do if you get hit with one.
If you get a message on your computer (not on an email) saying your data has been encrypted and you need to pay money to get it back, close all programs and shut down your computer immediately. If your computer will not shut down, hold the power button for 10 seconds which will perform a "hard shutdown" (not advisable normally). Do not turn the computer back on. Then contact a computer expert to assess the situation. Unfortunately even with the help of seasoned professionals, it is not always possible to recover the data.
To be prepared for an attack (and many other computer issues), you need to have your important data backed up somewhere other than your computer. Simple as that. If you have your data backed up, then lose it, you can just copy it back. Simple solutions to do so include the built-in Windows Backup (on PC) or Time Machine (on Mac). When backing up to an external drive, make sure it is only plugged into the computer while backing up, otherwise the data on the drive could become encrypted too.
Paying the ransom is a last resort. While there are scenarios where businesses haven't backed up their data, so it makes financial sense to pay the ransom and get it back, by doing so you encourage the hackers to do more of the same to others. Also, some of the more recent attacks don't actually have a guarantee of getting your data back, even if you pay the ransom.
Antivirus solutions (I recommend Avast and Eset) can often prevent these kinds of attacks by scanning your emails (the malicious software will often be attached to a scam email). But since no antivirus solution is bullet-proof, it makes strong sense to be cautious about emails that look suspicious. Regardless, regular backing up is a good solution to many problems including ransomware, computer failure and poor decision-making when you've had one too many drinks!
Bottom-line: always keep your data in two places, if it's important to you. Whether the second place is online in 'cloud' storage (eg. dropbox or onedrive) or an external drive is up to you.
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