Ransomware virus hijacks your computer until you pay

Watch the report from Action News' Nydia Han
March 7, 2014 1:15:16 PM PST
A malicious virus is infecting people's computers, and it has seasoned technical experts and even federal authorities scratching their heads.

It is a growing problem: a virus that holds your computer and everything on it hostage until you pay ransom.

Action News captured a message from one Bucks County woman's computer.

"Your files are encrypted, we are going to burn them."

She asked not to be identified, so we will call her Judith.

Judith called Action News right after she turned on her computer and saw the message.

"Here's the date and time by which you have to go and get the green dot money pack card, bring $400 worth of cash with you and then we will unlock your computer," she was told.

Judith's computer machine had become infected with a virus known as ransomware.

The virus captured all of Judith's files, and the criminals behind it told her she would lose everything unless she paid that $400 using an untraceable gift card. And Judith was given only 72 hours to act.

"It was a wakeup call. There's no doubt it was a wakeup call," said Marilee Ryan

When Marilee Ryan fell victim to ransomware, she called her friend, who is an IT specialist, but even he couldn't unencrypt it.

"As far as the complexity, this is insane. This is incredible," said Dave Bannister, owner of HamiltonSpotlight.com.

Ryan decided to pay the ransom.

"The minute that I put the money in there and hit 'Send the Money,' the files started getting decrypted," she said.

Judith chose not to pay and lost everything.

"I had a collection of memorabilia, community affairs, my writings, pictures, recipes," she said. "It's all gone."

But a word of warning: there is absolutely no guarantee that even if you do pay, you will get your files back. In many cases, victims don't recover anything.

So take steps to avoid a computer hijacking in the first place.

"Keeping your system up to date, installing your anti-virus patches, your system patches, being suspicious of chain mail and email attachments," said Russell Handorf, Computer Scientist for the FBI's Cyber Task Force.

It is usually clicking on a link or attachment that allows the virus to invade, so do not open anything you are not expecting even if it appears to be from someone you know.

Also, back up your computer files regularly. An external hard drive may not be enough if you are a heavy user.

Consider using a reputable off-site server house that will hold your data in an ITS system for safe keeping.

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