Apple users are no longer safe from ransomware

03 May 2016 by Jennifer Duits

There has been a long-standing rumour that Macs are immune to viruses and now, someone has proven Macs can be infected. The word is out in CNET’s article: “Apple users beware: First live ransomware targeting Macs found 'in the wild”. What does this mean for Apple users? Has something changed within the Mac OS X and do they need to do anything different?

The rumours

To answer these questions, let’s start by exploring the rumour that Macs are immune. This rumour has been around for a long time. I believe it was five years ago when my father told me that a salesperson at a large retailer told him this 'fact'. At that time, I knew it wasn’t exactly true and I did a little digging as into why and now I am re-exploring the same issue. Five years ago, How-To Geek published an article on why Macs may not be immune to viruses. In this article they site three possible reasons why the Mac OS X is less-prone to viruses:

  1. Market share – In 2011, Windows users greatly outnumbered Mac users as illustrated in this very interesting chart from How-to Geek.
  2. Time and effort – Being there were more PCs on the market in 2011, more was known about them and less research was needed by an attacker. “Security by minority” according to How-To Geek.
  3. Short list of viruses – in this article, they state in 2008, there were less than 200 pieces of malware targeting Apple. I will note that their source for this information is no longer available, so take this number with a grain of salt.

Let’s skip ahead to more recent findings on the topic. According to an article by Venture Beat in September of 2015, the operating system market share for personal computers still belongs to Windows. In other words, the term “security by minority” still holds true.

According to an article by Digital Trends in May of 2015, another reason for Macs being targeted by malware is the profitability. This goes hand-in-hand with time and effort from above. There is still more known about Windows and it is easier to write malware to target Windows.

Ransomware attack

As we have seen from recent news, number three above may not hold true for long. The list of viruses targeting Macs is starting to grow. One such virus is a type called ransomware. If you are unfamiliar with what ransomware does, it infects your computer and locks all of your files. It will then send you to a screen stating that if you want to access your computer again, you will need to pay a certain amount of money to do so. They also typically give you a quick deadline (before they erase your files) to respond by in order to increase the pressure to pay. It is hard to trace as they will use currency like bitcoins to collect the ransom. If infected, there is not much you can do. There are sites now combating the ransomware virus which publish a list of codes which have been given to unlock files that are held hostage. If one of the published ones works, you are in luck, if not, you might have to pay or forgo your files.

Why Macs and why now?

It was always a question of “when” and not “if” when it came to Macs becoming a target by viruses. Tech professionals have been saying for years that they knew it was possible, but it was a matter of when someone of a questionable nature was going to invest their time and resources to execute it.  Basically, someone took on the challenge of creating a ransomware that will work on the Mac OS X and succeeded. Nothing has changed within the OS and it is nothing that Apple did. So what does this mean going forward?

Safety tips

If you own a Mac and are concerned, there are some tips (adapted from Dan Kusnetzky at Virtualization Review) to help keep your data safe.


Understand that you are vulnerable. You are already part of the way to making your Mac safe by reading this article. You have now read that there is a possibility that your Mac could become infected with a virus and you need to act upon this awareness.

Anti-virus software

Own it and keep it updated. It’s not 100 per cent protection, but it will keep a lot of the pesky viruses at bay. 

Proceed with caution

Watch the sites you visit and files you open. Sites that offer freeware or free games have a potential to have something nasty hanging onto that programme. Only visit sites you know to be safe and do not download anything that you don’t know is 100 per cent safe. I know this is sometimes difficult as you are surfing to gain knowledge on something and are following a never-ending list of links or are on social media and something piques your interest. Social media is kind of nice as you can check comments to make sure others have had success accessing the site without issue. As for files you have emailed to you, make sure it is legit. If there are any extensions or strange characters in the name of the file, do not open.

Is Apple any less-safe than they were before? Not really. They have always been at risk, it’s just that someone has recently targeted them. Apple is still low as far as the number of viruses out there written for Mac OS X. The big issue is that if you think you are invincible, someone will challenge you on it.