New cyber scam takes your computer hostage

SAN DIEGO – A new computer scam “Ransonware” is infecting and affecting thousands of people across the country.  Some cyber security analysts have dubbed it the “new Nigerian scam.”

“If I’m an attacker, I’ll go ahead and put Ransomware on your computer and say I need a certain amount of money for you to get your documents back,” said Chris Astacio, a security manager for Websense, a cyber-security firm in Sorrento Valley.

ransomwareAstacio said hackers essentially take your computer hostage by infecting it with malware, or a virus. Instructions pop up on your computer screen demanding you wire money, typically $200-$400, in order for your documents or files to be unlocked.

Special Agent Terry Reed at the FBI San Diego’s cyber department said less than 5% of the victims who pay end up retrieving their files.

“I think what surprises me is just how innovative [hackers] are. Every day, it seems they have a new scam they’re using to lure in victims and it’s unfortunately very effective,” said Reed.

Ransomware started overseas in Russia and there are now cases reported in the United States. Reed didn’t have a specific number of cases, but said the number is safely in the thousands.

Reed said hackers will often send messages appearing to be from the FBI or another authority agency. The message informs the victim he visited a child pornography site, and now must pay a fee in order to unlock his computer. Fearful that he is being tracked or did something wrong, victims pay the money.

“This is a total fear tactic. In reality, the person did nothing wrong, but the hackers are savvy enough to convince people otherwise,” Reed explained.

The FBI does monitor illegal computer activity and has an entire cyber team dedicated to investigating Internet crimes, but Reed admits ultimately catching the crooks is hard.

Websense runs Triton technology, a security system that helps shut down hackers before they get into your system. The company also has a large map in real time showing the number of malicious attacks on their client’s computer at any given moment.

Astacio said the key to protecting your computer is having several layers of security including a WAP protected WIFI password and strong anti-virus software. He also said to always run the updates on your software because hackers often work in older versions.

“Hackers and security is always a cat and mouse game,” Astacio said. “But to look ahead, the big issue is going to be mobile devices.”

Both Astacio and Reed agree hackers will start to target smartphone and tablets, so they recommend protecting yourself using the same tools as you would for your computer.

If you believe you are a victim of Ransomware or any other cyber scam, you can report it at www.ic3.gov.