It can lock you out of your computer, make it impossible for you to access precious photos or videos and make your devices utterly inoperable, unless you pay up.
Ransomware is a type of computer malware spread through corrupted emails and infected websites that contaminates computers and mobile devices by restricting access to files and programs. Sometimes it encrypts the entire hard drive, making it impossible for the user to access any files, unless a ransom is paid.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by ransomware, from private individuals to entire police departments to city agencies, like New York City’s Department of Investigation.
Attacks are on the rise, experts say, and few are immune.
Sisters Aurora Gross and Johnita Anthony discovered they were hacked when they could not access any of their files or open any sort of attachment.
Gross and Anthony are partners in their family business, Consolidated Appliance Services, a Mount Vernon company that relies on computers to make everything run smoothly.
After the hack, Aurora said all of the data was gone.
"I'm talking 15 years of papers and receipts." she said.
The sisters ultimately did not the ransom. They were able to retrieve a slightly older version of their data because they backed up the business files on a regular basis.
Adam Wandt, a John Jay professor specializing in computer technology, has also fallen victim to ransomware.
"If an unknowledgeable person gets a pop-up they think is from the FBI, they think they may have done something wrong by accident and then pay the 'fine,' which is a ransom," says Wandt.
The Swedesboro-Woolwich School District in New Jersey had its information held hostage for $128,000, but Superintendent Terry Van Zoeren never entertained paying.
“We decided it was probably wise to just rebuild our system,” says Van Zoeren.
According to former FBI agent Austin Berglas, senior managing director and head of the U.S. Cyber Investigations and Incident Response practice at K2 Intelligence, cybercrimes are difficult to investigate because authorities are always playing catch up.
"The bad guys will just re-engineer the code to make a couple changes and now we have to look out for the new variant,” says Berglas.
In 2013, a program called Cryptolocker made headlines when hundreds of thousands of computer users were targeted. A year later, the Department of Justice dismantled the infrastructure that allowed Cryptolocker to infect so many computers.
Experts offer several tips for protecting computers from ransomware:
- Use spyware scanning software in addition to good virus scanning software
- Keep the operating system updated and practice safe browsing
- Never open attachments from unknown sources and be careful about which websites are visited Back up files on a space that is not physically connected to your computer because those connected spaces can be infected