Have you ever logged into your computer only to realize you’ve been locked out of your system? Instead of your computer’s normal boot-up procedure there’s a message window informing you that access to your own computer has been restricted for any number of reasons. Most commonly the message appears to be from some sort of federal cyber task force, informing you that you’ve been locked out of your computer for storing and transmitting illegal or illicit material. The message goes on to say that your computer will remain locked or encrypted until you the owner of the computer agrees to wire money in order to re-gain access. Of course in reality it’s not a law enforcement or government agency of any kind, but a growing form of malware that has infected your system.
The common term for this sort of malware attack is “Ransomware,” though it is also sometimes referred to as a crypto-virus or crypto-trojan. It infects your system in the same way a typical computer worm might, entering your system through some vulnerability in your network or anti-virus software or perhaps a careless file download on the part of the user. Once the worm has accessed your system it will begin encrypting your personal files on the hard drive, giving the malware author the only decryption key which is now necessary to regain use of your computer. The program will then force the user to either buy a “program” to decrypt the files or in some cases may even ask for a wire transfer or paypal/paysafecard payment. The vast majority of the time, even if the user relents to paying the fee, there is little they can do to un-encrypt the compromised files.
If you suspect your computer has been victimized by this specific type of malware the best thing to do is to immediately bring your computer in to be looked at by a professional. In some cases, the hard drive will need to be wiped completely to restore use of the machine, but often times some files can be saved. Because paying the scammer most likely will not restore the use and effectiveness of your system, it’s never a good idea to send them money and especially dangerous to give them any banking information such as an account or routing number.