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Here's how you can protect your PC from the 'WannaCry' ransomware attack

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We’ve all seen the headlines by now: Late last week, a ransomware attack started sweeping the globe, crippling tens of thousands of computers the world over. Hospitals were forced to delay critical and life-saving surgeries, as they were locked out of their own computers by the “WCRY” — or WannaCrypt — ransomware, and government agencies were shut out of critical computer systems.

Over the weekend, the spread of the malicious code was slowed by the accidental discovery of a killswitch within the malware itself — but it’s still out there, and could be replaced by an enhanced version at any time. Luckily, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself from it, and most other versions of ransomware.

Download the patch

As is usually the case with these sorts of attacks, Windows users are most at risk, but Microsoft has put out a patch that should secure your system. Let’s not beat around the bush. If you’re running Windows, fire up your Windows Update and download the latest security patches from Microsoft.

On the off chance your Windows Update isn’t showing any new patches, you might have already installed it if your PC automatically updated itself, or you might be running an ancient version of Windows that no longer receives mainstream updates. That includes Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 8.

If you’re running Windows XP, Vista, Windows 8, or another elder Microsoft OS, head over to the Microsoft site and download the patch for your version of Windows. Like, right now. Stop reading this and go grab it! We’ll wait.

Upgrade to Windows 10

After installing the security update, the next best thing you can do to protect yourself against future attacks is pretty simple. Upgrade to the latest version of Windows! If you’re still using Windows XP or Windows 8, you’re more at risk for this kind of attack than users on the latest version of Windows.

We know, Windows 10 isn’t perfect, and it has a bunch of issues that — understandably — make some users nervous. Integrated advertising, for one, is not such a great feature. It’s easily disabled, but it’s still there, and it’s a huge pain. But so is getting locked out of your PC because your system is out of date.

Windows 10 is Microsoft’s flagship operating system and because of that, it gets a lot of attention. Security updates roll out on a regular basis, and it’s constantly improving. When it first debuted, there were more than a few reasons why you might not want to upgrade, but as time has gone on — and as the operating system has improved — that list has gotten smaller and smaller.

With this global ransomware attack, that list has dwindled even further. By now, the risks of sticking with an outdated version of Windows far outweigh the rewards. So do yourself a favor, and upgrade to the latest version of Windows as soon as you can. You can even check out our guide on getting setup with Windows 10 here.

And, of course, install an antivirus

Antivirus protection is not impenetrable. WannaCrypt, for instance, took advantage of exploits in unpatched versions of Windows. Those systems can be infected remotely from other network-attached computers that were already compromised. An antivirus may not be able to protect effectively against and attack, particularly when it’s new.

However, antivirus programs are still a good idea. Many can detect and isolate software that appears to behave suspiciously, which will sometimes halt undetected malware. Good antivirus programs are also updated frequently, so even if the initial wave of attacks slip through, later attempts should be detected and halted.

Check out our list of free antivirus programs and download one of our top picks.

Jayce Wagner
Former Digital Trends Contributor
A staff writer for the Computing section, Jayce covers a little bit of everything -- hardware, gaming, and occasionally VR.
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