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Ransomware and its Risk to Dental Practices

What to do when somebody changes all your locks.

Posted by Jason Penrod on Nov 12, 2019

Ransomware tends to be one of those spooky internet terms that regularly make headlines, but most of the public stays in the dark as to what it is. Like worms and other malware before it, ransomware is just the latest, trendiest form of cyberattack that puts your dental practice at risk. 

What is ransomware?

Ransomware, or ransom malware, is a type of malware that prevents you from accessing important files, a computer, or your entire system. Ransomware works by encrypting these files behind a password that a hacker will attempt to sell (ransom) to you. Typically the hacker will request payment through credit card, wire, or cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. 

Is my dental practice at risk?

In short, very much so. In August of 2019, more than 400 dental practices in Wisconsin were affected by a ransomware attack that targeted customers of Percsoft and Digital Dental Record. The attack encrypted access to patient charts, schedules, x-rays, and billing information, everything necessary for the practices to accept patients. 

While the affected practices were able to receive basic hygiene visits, procedures requiring an x-ray wasn’t possible, eliminating more than half of their patients’ visits. For many practices, the inability to accept patients lasted 3-4 days, resulting in thousands of lost revenue.

How do I get ransomware?

The most common way ransomware might infect your practice is through malicious spam, also known as a phishing email. We previously covered the topic of phishing, where a hacker will send an email posing as legitimate communication that typically includes a malicious link or attached file. Clicking on the link or opening the file installs the necessary files for the attack.

Another method ransomware can infect your computer is through malicious advertising. Attackers will exploit insecure websites to run fake ads that link to a file that downloads ransomware to your computer.

What types of ransomware are out there?

Ransomware is more commonly associated with malware that encrypts and prevents access to files on your computer. While this is the type of ransomware you should be most concerned with, it is just one tactic hackers use to get you to pay them. 

A less terrifying version of ransomware is known as “scareware.” Scareware installs software on your computer that poses as notifications from your antivirus software or operating system. The messages will indicate that your computer has been infected, and you’ll need to pay the hacker posing an antivirus vendor to remove it. A similar tactic involves an emailed notice that may indicate that your information has been compromised in some way.

The most important thing to remember is if you see notifications like this, that legitimate alerts from your antivirus would not direct you to pay an individual to remove it. If you do have antivirus software, the software itself typically can remove malware like this.

Another type of ransomware will lock your access to your computer, instead of encrypting files or files systems on your computer. “Screen locker” ransomware, while challenging to work around, can sometimes be fixed by restoring your computer to a previous state (you’ll want to talk to your IT team/consultant). However, this strategy won’t work if the ransomware encrypts your files.

How do I protect my practice against ransomware?

The best defense against ransomware is to keep both your operating system (ex. Windows, Mac OS) and software updated. While long updates can sometimes stand in the way of productivity, they often fix security holes that can be exploited.

Using antivirus software will safeguard against common ransomware that you might accidentally download from the internet. Make sure to keep your antivirus software updated, as it should scan for and alert you before opening files known for being associated with ransomware.

Unless otherwise necessary, limit your staff’s ability to install or run software on the practice’s computers. Often these responsibilities can be left to one member of your office staff or IT personnel. If you haven’t already, identify the employees that should have administrative privileges and prevent access from other members of your staff.

Backing up files and using cloud-based software is one way to mitigate the risk of a ransomware attack. If the files on your computer are encrypted, provide a source for you to recover your files after an attack.