It begins with a scary-looking pop-up on your computer, and it could end with you having to fork out hundreds of pounds to get your files back. Have you been hit by the ransomware scam?
Ransomware is a scam that’s designed to scare. When it infects your computer, it blocks you from accessing it, or even encrypts your files. Worst of all, it does so under the guise of authority.
We’ve heard from Which? members who’ve seen pop-up messages purporting to be from local police forces, accusing them of carrying out illegal activities on their computer. The virus then warns that unless an on-the-spot fine is paid, they’ll lose the use of their PC altogether.
Mike Jones was just one victim of this growing scam. He was watching a video on YouTube when his computer screen suddenly displayed a message claiming to be from the local police. The message said he’d been using the web illegally and that he faced time in prison unless he paid a fine. Mike comments:
‘Obviously, I thought this was a scam and I got in touch with the police force to ask what I should do. They took me through the right steps, and we got rid of it, but I had another message a few months later. It was a pain more than anything else, and frustrating.’
Thousands affected by ransomware scams
According to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, there were more than 7,000 cases of ransomware fraud reported in the UK between April and September 2013.
But this figure only indicates victims who contacted the authorities. The National Crime Agency says millions of Britons have been targeted and risk losing their data to hackers.
The criminals behind these viruses are turning the screw, with one recent version, CryptoLocker, even encrypting victims’ files. You’re charged for a key-code to decrypt the scrambled data, and without this, your photos, documents and music can’t be opened. In short, it’s old-fashioned extortion with a modern, digital twist.
Don’t pay the ransom
CryptoLocker is unusual in that security forums say people who have paid up have been able to restore their files. According to experts monitoring the CryptoLocker attacks, the crooks have been honouring their side of the bargain.
Yet, quite rightly, Officials say you should never pay a computer ransom, mainly due to fears that paying will encourage more attacks and that the money could be used to fund other criminal activities.
Even if things feel desperate, there are steps you can take to remove the virus from your system. By booting up in Safe mode, you can restore your PC to an earlier time point then run an updated virus scan to clean your system out.
The best defence of all is to keep your security settings watertight by making sure your software is always up to date. It’s always a good idea to keep your most important files backed up on a hard drive or online in cloud storage, so if a virus attacks your PC, you’ll have vital backups in place. You can get detailed advice on how to spot and remove ransomware here.
Have you been hit by the ransomware scam? What did you do?