AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The computer malware attack that's captured and crippled institutions from Britain's National Health Service to businesses in China and Russia has also affected individuals. It's known as WannaCry, and it exploits a flaw in Microsoft Windows. From there, it spreads quickly to lock up all the files on a computer. Hackers then demand a ransom to release the data back to its owner.
Theresa Payton is founder of Fortalice cybersecurity company. She's here to talk about what to do to protect yourself from WannaCry. Welcome to the program.
THERESA PAYTON: Well, thank you for having me on.
CORNISH: People are hearing a lot of kind of scary stuff about the ways that this malware attack is affecting big systems, but what preventive measure can they take right now to try and shield themselves?
PAYTON: The first one is watch out for those links and attachments, even from people you know because cyber criminals are often spoofing your friends and family's email accounts. So what you want to do is trust but verify. Ask them, email them, did you mean to send this to me? The second thing you can do before you click on that link is go to a free tool called virustotal.com. What's great about that is it'll tell you whether or not somebody has reported it as a bad link.
The other thing that can be incredibly helpful is you want to make sure you've got a really good backup system. This can be a great way to make sure that you can just backup and restore if you are a victim of this type of cyber crime.
CORNISH: Now, the thing about this crime that sets it apart is the issue of ransom and the idea of whether or not to pay for it. The White House right now is saying that less than $70,000 in ransom has been paid and that none of that led to people actually getting their data back. What's your stance on this as a cybersecurity expert?
PAYTON: Yeah. I mean, this is a tough one. In many cases, these cyber criminals do give you your data back after you pay because they want to make sure people continue to pay them. So there's almost this strange honor code among thieves, you know, where they kind of live up to yes, I'll give you your files back.
I don't judge anybody that has to pay. I really do like to arm people with the offensive strategy so you don't have to pay. But in some cases people decide look, they want $300. And my pictures, my documents, my information is so precious to me, I can't afford to live without it, so I'm just going to pay.
CORNISH: Even if you do pay, can you be sure the malware is off your computer for good?
PAYTON: You can't be sure. And that's the tough thing because oftentimes you don't know. How did they get in here to begin with? Was it truly an email, and have I deleted it? Or was it a link that I actually trust, and I'm going to click on it again, and they're going to be right back?
After you recover from ransomware, whether you pay them or you don't pay them, what you want to do is do a full scan of your device. The other thing, again, back to Apple, Linux and Microsoft, go to their website. They actually have free tools called anti-virus and anti-malware removal tools, so these tools will actually scan your computer, and they will actually see some of these bad files and fix things for you.
Then the last thing is you always want to make sure you have the latest greatest Internet browsers and versions of operating systems because they are putting in new privacy and security features every week. And so if you keep those up to date, that's going to help a lot.
CORNISH: Theresa Payton, you've given us a lot (laughter) to go through here. Thanks so much.
PAYTON: Well, thanks for having me on. And I hope I helped everybody a little bit today.
CORNISH: Theresa Payton is former chief information officer for the White House and founder of Fortalice, a cybersecurity firm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.