What is “Game Over Zeus” and how can you protect yourself?

Game Over Zeus is a highly sophisticated “Botnet” malware program which has two pretty horrendous aspects. The first is to open up a back door into your computer so that it can sniff out sensitive data such as financial details. The second is a “ransom-ware” payload which will make your data inaccessible by encrypting your files and demanding that a sum of money is paid in return for the password to access them. All very nasty but no doubt you have heard that there is some good news.

A collaboration between various international crime prevention agencies has managed to shut down the servers at the heart of this cyber-attack. However, the public has been warned that this will most likely only set things back by a couple of weeks but two weeks in computing terms is an eternity and it means that you have plenty of time to prepare and prevent yourself from becoming a victim of this awful crime.

dont_panicHow Can I Protect Myself?

The main goal, of course, is to not get infected in the first place.  There is a heap of excellent information and links to resources available at the Stay Safe Online web site providing straightforward advice on how to prevent malware from getting on to your computer.  The big message to shout from the rooftops is never open email attachments unless you absolutely know what they are. If you see an email from HMRC telling you to open the attached file to fill out a simple form for a tax rebate…. just don’t.

Over the next two weeks though, there are some things that everybody needs to do to help protect themselves from a Game Over Zeus attack. These steps are all common sense computing and should be carried out regularly anyway, but now would be a good time to check that they are in place.


1. Make Sure Your Operating System is Up-To-Date

Most operating systems update themselves automatically these days but it’s worth checking just in case. For Windows users you can find the “Windows Update” button in the start menu and Mac OS X users should open the app store and check for updates.

Windows XP users are particularly vulnerable now as support for XP has been ceased and there will be no patch available to prevent this or other malware attacks. Please see my previous blog for more information on the potential risks arising from continuing to use XP.

2. Make Sure Your Browser is Up-To Date.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re using Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer or Safari, you should make sure you have the latest version of the software. In addition to ensuring the best compatibility with web sites, keeping your browser software up-to-date will ensure that you you have the fewest possible security flaws.

Browser security can also be increased by tweaking the security settings but there is a trade-off between security and convenience. Security is increased by restricting what you will allow the browser to do automatically, launching rich content for example, and you need to strike a balance that is both useable and secure. The standard security settings on the most popular browsers will be fine for the majority of people but if you feel you can forego some functionality to increase you online security then have a look into how you can change those settings for your browser.

3. Update Your Anti-Virus Software

You’d think this would be at the top of the list but technically Game Over Zeus isn’t a virus. A virus is a self-replicating piece of code which attaches itself to another file and generally delivers its payload when the file it is attached to is executed. Sophisticated malware requires the user to install it on the host machine so that it can have access to things like registry settings. Often this is carried out by tricking a user into running an executable file, most commonly as an email attachment, which then causes the malware to be installed. Similarly malware can be installed alongside other, apparently legitimate, software so always be careful about what you install on your machine.

Back to the point though, updating your anti-virus software is just good practice. My personal favourite for Windows is Microsoft Security Essentials which is completely free of charge and can be downloaded from the Microsoft web site. It really is very good and it really is free. Mac users tend to be a bit more protected from these kind of threats as they are significantly out-numbered by Windows users and if you’re a creating malware you want to aim at the biggest target. However, Mac users are not immune from viral or malware attacks and Kapersky AV is widely regarded as the best protection for your shiny aluminium computer-box.

Many anti-virus programs also check for well-known malware. If you have complete Internet security software it may well detect the presence of the Game Over Zeus code and give you a head start in removing it from your machine.

4. Make a Backup of Your Files

The way that ransom-ware works is that it encrypts all your data so that you can’t access it. You then get a message on the screen which tells you how much to pay to get the password to unlock your data. However, attacks like this can only encrypt what is on your local machine. Cloud BackupAnything you have backed-up or stored on a USB stick cannot be affected if the USB device is not attached to the computer when the malware is activated.

Better still (here it comes) files saved to cloud storage are entirely protected from the attack. If you have a local copy on your computer then those files will become inaccessible in the event of a malware attack of this kind but your online masters will be unaffected. Having to reload your computer is a pain in the neck but I’d rather that than hand money over to extortionists any day.

5. Don’t Be Complacent

Although the authorities have done a stirling job of striking at the heart of this attack it is important to remember that this is merely a stay of execution. By shoring up your computer security in this grace period you can be a part of the ongoing effort to curb the threat posed by cyber-criminals.

Sounds stupid but have you ever stopped to think what it is that actually makes a piece of art so incredibly valuable?

Vincent Van Gogh You may think that your album of holiday snaps from 2004 and the art galleries of the world couldn’t be further apart but one thing they do have in common is that the contents are irreplaceable. There are, of course, many factors affecting the value of works of art but one thing that makes many of them beyond valuation is the fact that they are one of a kind. It’s true that your own photo collection probably has a narrower audience, but to you they are as priceless as the Mona Lisa so the question begs – What are you doing to protect them? I’ve covered the various methods of backing up and sharing photos in a previous blog but there are still a staggering number of people who have absolutely no backup of their photos at all. A corrupted hard disk drive or a burst pipe above your ceiling and BOOM! Everything gone, forever.  That’s a pretty unsettling thought isn’t it?

Luckily there are a couple of things you can do prevent a disaster from permanently destroying your precious pictures.

1. Create an Inter-Dimensional Rift to Facilitate Time Travel

Worm Hole According to Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking this is entirely possible and lets face it, they are the kind of people who would know about this sort of stuff.  I’ll be honest though, I’ve got an ‘O’ level in physics and I’m not sure that I completely understand how you go about creating one of these wormholes. It does seem that you will need to borrow the Hadron Collider as a starting point and you might possibly need access to space travel so may have to get NASA on board. All-in-all it looks like quite a bit of a hassle but the beauty of time travel is that it is equally suited to recovering your home photos as it is to recovering priceless works of art; which is handy.

Cost: Estimated at $239 trillion trillion billion USD.


2. Backup Your Photos Online

Oh come-on…. you knew it was coming. 🙂

It is true that this won’t help you if you happen to be the owner of something by Picasso but for protecting your irreplaceable digital photos it’s a whole lot easier than building a time machine and definitely cheaper.

Cost: £3.95 a month.

Of course the other benefit of backing everything up online is that it leaves you time to do other things. I’m using my spare time to build a Hadron Collider in the shed at the end of my garden………

Student on a Cloud

Are the students in your house backing up their coursework?

If you have a student in your house then data backup is probably somewhere near the bottom of your priorities list. Most likely you are preoccupied with more pressing concerns such as actually getting your son or daughter out of bed in the morning, wondering whether you may ever get to see the inside of your bathroom again and contemplating why your fridge is so curiously devoid of snacks despite the fact that you relentlessly restock it. However, your priorities list will be utterly flipped on its head if you are unfortunate enough to suffer a data loss event. On the plus side you may suddenly find the student in your house becomes uncommonly animated when it happens, but probably not in a good way.

dogBack in the day (I feel old just typing that) there was the outside possibility that the dog might eat your homework. Worst case scenario you lose one piece of homework, get into a spot of bother with the teacher and have to clear dog vomit off the living room carpet. Modern life is somewhat different though and the chances are every piece of homework your child has ever done and all the reference material related to it are sitting on a magnetic disc spinning around at 7,200rpm in a small box in the corner of your dining room. These days the canine fate of homework is merely a metaphor for any number of mishaps that could beset your hard disk drive and ironically one of the few things all that work is actually protected from is a real dog; providing its properly house trained.

Backing up homework still low on the list?

The next step is university. We all know that students have little concern for frivolous activities such as staying out most of the night partying. It’s also true that nothing is more at the front of their minds than ensuring that irreplaceable coursework is safely backed up; at least that’s what my daughter tells me. But let’s imagine a crazy scenario where our student isn’t actually paying a great deal of attention to things like securing their work and instead is drinking a lot of beer with his/her friends. I know it sounds unlikely but it could happen and if it does then the risk of losing three years of work in the blink of an eye is significantly increased. The Internet is littered with heartbreaking news articles of students who have lost vast swathes of coursework due to technical faults and theft of laptops. There’s no reason why uni shouldn’t be an awesome social experience, but all the best times in the world will be eclipsed by the memory of staring desperately at the “blue screen of death” and the feeling of emptiness that only comes from the true realisation that everything you have worked so hard at has gone.

Surveys suggest that only 30% of students have a full and current backup of their work.

In my humble opinion the necessity for backing up work should be ingrained into every student and integrated into every part of their education where there is a reliance on data storage. Pressing the “save” button and assuming everything is OK is not enough.  Every document needs to exist at least twice, definitely on separate media and preferably held in separate geographical locations. This could mean copying all your files to a USB drive and storing it at a friend’s house or doing your work at school and then emailing a copy to store on your home computer.  Naturally we would take the opportunity to shamelessly plug our automated cloud backup service but any form of replicating data and storing it remotely is better than not doing it all.

My Data Anywhere

It doesn’t have to be tricky.

Seeing as I’m in the shameless plugging zone though, consider the following. Our unlimited cloud backup service allows you to backup as much data as you want from as many computers as you want for a single monthly fee. Those computers do not have to be in the same building or even the same town; all that is required is an Internet connection.  You can set up an automated backup for your son or daughter’s laptop whilst they are still at home and they can just carry on using it when they go off to university.  Best of all our software will silently copy their coursework to the cloud even in the unlikely event that they decide to spend their nights partying instead of backing up their data.