It’s fall, the season of Halloween, and Slate recently ran a truly terrifying story. It focused on the rise of “ransomware,” a new form of malware that is truly creepy, and, sadly, quite effective. According to Slate, this is how this specific hack works: You either click on an infected web page or a link in an email message and your computer screen turns gray. A browser window then pops up complete with the FBI logo in its top left corner. Under that is a live webcam feed with a picture of a face, yours.
That’s shocking. What happens next is even worse. You’ll see a message on your screen accusing you of downloading files illegally in violation of federal copyright laws. The message states that you must either pay a fine or face up to three years in prison. You’re then given 48 to 72 hours to pay this fine—often, as Slate reports, by buying a prepaid cash card—to avoid facing criminal charges. The message also states that you’ll be locked out of your machine permanently if you don’t pay.
A real threat
Obviously you will not be charged with anything if you don’t pay, it is a scam. However, they may really be able to lock you out of your computer according to a senior security advisor quoted by Slate. So should you just pay the fine to avoid this (it’s usually in the $100 range) or not? Perhaps not, once they have your money there is no assurance they won’t lock your computer anyway to get more money.
So how do you protect yourself? The same way you always have, with up-to-date antivirus software. Also, pay attention to what sites you visit and don’t click on links in emails from people you don’t know.
If you do fall victim to one of these ransomware attacks, you will have to enlist the help of a computer security expert. You can even contact the real FBI and file a complaint at www.ic3.gov.