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Ransomware virus restricts access to computer, threatens user for money

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WASHINGTON -

It may look official, but it is really a computer virus meant to scare you. It is called ransomware, a class of malware that infects your computer and blocks you from being able to access your files until you pay a ransom.

This virus tells you your computer is locked -- with an official looking FBI seal. But the FBI has nothing to do with it.

“They make it look as if it's a warning coming from a Microsoft application or something from law enforcement,” said Nick Savage, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Cybercrime Division.

He says ransomware is on the rise and all it takes is for you to click on an infected link in an email attachment or visit a hacked website.

Just like a landmine, it is out there waiting for the next victim.

“Unfortunately, it's that easy,” said Savage.

The message tells you you have been caught for illegal online activity, like visiting a child porn site or sending spam messages with terrorists motives from your computer.

The ransomware announces your computer is now locked until you pay a fine. One, for example, asks for $200 with a deadline of 48 hours.

The ransomware either threatens legal action or permanently locks you out -- with no way to get all your personal information stored on your computer. And there is little that can be done.

The malware has been around a couple years, but attackers are getting savvy. More and more are raising the stakes to motivate their victims and using methods that make it harder to recover data.

“I think it's really part of the beauty of the crime -- that people just want it to go away -- so they're willing to pay,” Savage said. “It's often underreported, so I don't know if we have a true sense of how prevalent or prolific this type of crime really is.”

If you fall victim to the scam, notify law enforcement and report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at IC3.gov.

But the best course of action is protection. Back up your computer often on an external hard drive. And make sure your computer is updated with the latest antivirus software.

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