You wake up one morning to find an ominous message on your PC. All your files are now encrypted, it says, and you are forbidden access to them unless you pay thousands of dollars.
This nightmare has crippled hospitals, businesses and individuals. It is called ransomware, and the FBI reports it is on the rise.
It used to be that trying to fool you into giving up information, so someone could steal your identity was the No. 1 goal of online crooks. Now it is ransomware.
This column is to help your director of family IT keep all your PCs and devices safe.
While the likelihood of someone encrypting your PC is relatively low, it is painless for the perpetrator and could cost you thousands of dollars if you choose to pay the ransom.
A user is tricked into installing a piece of malware on their PC. The malware runs in the background and encrypts your files using a strong encryption algorithm. It then posts a message instructing you to send money via Bitcoin within a short period to get a decryption code. If you do not send money by the deadline, even the crooks claim they cannot decrypt your files.
A hospital in California resorted to paper systems for a week before giving up and paying $17,000 in ransom. A Kansas hospital paid the ransom — only to have some files remain encrypted until it paid more. Some report paying the ransom and never receiving the code to decrypt their files.
Anti-virus and malware detection software often fails to detect ransomware. Most often there is no software available to decrypt the files without paying the ransom. Payments are mostly sent to foreign countries. Finding, yet alone prosecuting, the criminals is not going to happen, experts say.