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Computer Ransom: Your Personal Files Hijacked And Held Hostage

Cyber Expert: 'The Internet Is A Fantastic Place, But It Still Has Its Dark Alleys'
Cyber extortion is the latest computer crime wave sweeping the country, in which computers are held for ransom. (Graphic: CBS 2)

Cyber extortion is the latest computer crime wave sweeping the country, in which computers are held for ransom. (Graphic: CBS 2)

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Imagine your personal information and all your computer files being taken, hijacked and held for ransom.

As CBS 2’s Kristine Johnson reported Wednesday, that is exactly what happens in the latest cyberscam. And it’s not all the scammers do.

Kathy Neary was shocked at the menacing message that appeared on her computer when she was just going about her business.

“All of a sudden, this screen came up that said: ‘Your computer is locked. You’ve got to pay a fine,’” Neary said.

The message also threatened arrest and even jail time if Neary did not pay $200.

Jim McGrath got a similar message on his computer, and paid what the computer kidnappers demanded – despite his better judgment.

“I felt I was being scammed,” McGrath said.

Indeed he was being scammed, and so was Neary. They were victims of cyber extortion – the latest computer crime wave sweeping the country, in which computers are held for ransom.

“You will be working, doing something, and up will pop a screen that says unless you pay this money you will no longer have access to your computer,” computer expert Lance Ulanoff said.

Sometimes, as in Neary’s case, the messages appear to be from law enforcement and claim a violation of federal law.

“The screen will have an FBI logo to make people think they’ve done something wrong,” Ulanoff said.

One warning with an FBI logo cites specific articles, sections and clauses of federal law, and claims: “Your IP address was used to visit website containing pornography, child pornography, zoophilia and child abuse. Your computer also contains video files with pornographic content, elements of violence and child pornography! Spam-messages with terrorist motives were also sent from your computer!”

That particular warning orders the customer to pay a fine of $200, or “otherwise you will be arrested.” The alleged crimes the victim is accused of committing carry “deprivation of liberty for four to twelve years.”

In McGrath’s case, he tried for hours to free his computer. But he could not, and he eventually gave into the scammers.

“I worry that they still may have access to my computer,” McGrath said.

Unlike McGrath, Neary refused to pay. She said she knew she didn’t break any law.

Her security software company helped free her files, but she still worries.

“I’m still not 100 percent sure that it’s completely cleared,” she said.

The real FBI is being inundated with complaints about the ransom scam, and security experts say this growing crime is getting even more aggressive – with extortionists demanding thousands of dollars.

So how do they do it? The answer is with a virus.

As you’re surfing the Web — scammers unleash a virus, known as “ransomware,” which actually lets them take control of your files. Afterward they ask for your money.

“Basically they say, ‘You can click on a link or send money directly to this,’” Ulanoff said. “They’ll give you information, an e-mail address to contact or they’ll even give you an address and people are sending hundreds of dollars.”

If you see a message demanding money to unlock your computer, experts advise cutting off your Internet connection immediately.

“You have to have security software running, that’s number one,” Ulanoff said, “and make sure that the subscription is live and up to date.”

Also, be cautious about Web sites that don’t end in .com, .net and .org. If a site ends in something you’ve never heard of like .cx or .tf, be careful.

“The Internet is a fantastic place, but it still has dark alleys,” Ulanoff said. “Stay away from the dark alleys.”

Because it’s so difficult to get your files back, experts say always back up your data so you’re prepared.

Have you ever been a victim of ransomware? Leave your comments below…