CULVER CITY, Calif.
In the past year, hundreds of thousands of people have switched on their computers to find alarming messages alerting them that they no longer have access to their PCs.
The messages claim to be from the FBI, other law enforcement agencies or Anonymous, a shadowy group of hackers. The computer users are told that the only way to get their machines back is to pay a steep fine.
And, curiously, it's working.
The scheme is making more than $5 million a year, according to computer security experts. The scourge dates to 2009 in Eastern Europe. Now the threat, known as ransomware, has reached the United States.
Essentially online extortion, ransomware involves infecting a user's computer with a virus that locks it. The attackers demand money before the computer will be unlocked, but once the money is paid, they rarely unlock it.
In the vast majority of cases, victims do not regain access to their computer unless they hire a computer technician to remove the virus manually. And even then, they risk losing all files and data because the best way to remove the virus is to wipe the computer clean.
Victims in the United States see messages in English purporting to be from the FBI or Justice Department. The latest variants speak to victims through recorded audio messages that tell users that if they do not pay within 48 hours, they will face criminal charges.
The messages often demand that victims buy a preloaded debit card that can be purchased at a local drugstore — and enter the PIN. That way it's impossible for victims to cancel the transaction once it becomes clear that criminals have no intention of unlocking their PC.
The hunt is on to find these gangs. Researchers at Symantec said they had identified 16 ransomware gangs. They tracked one gang that tried to infect more than 500,000 PCs over an 18-day period. But catching and convicting those responsible can be difficult.
Victims become infected in many ways. In most cases, people visit compromised websites that download the program to their machines without so much as a click. Criminals have a penchant for infecting pornography sites because it makes their law enforcement threats more credible and because embarrassing people who were looking at pornography makes them more likely to pay.
More recently, researchers at Sophos, a British computer security company, noted that thousands of people were getting ransomware through sites hosted by GoDaddy, the popular Web services company that manages some 50 million domain names and hosts about 5 million websites on its servers.
Scott Gerlach, GoDaddy's director of information security operations, said it appeared the accounts had been compromised because account owners independently clicked on a malicious link or were compromised by a computer virus that stole password credentials. He advised users to enable GoDaddy's two-step authentication option, which sends a second password to users' cellphones every time they try to log in.
One of the scarier things about ransomware is that criminals can use victims' machines however they like. While the computer is locked, the criminals can steal passwords and even get into the victims' online bank accounts.
Security experts warn to never pay the ransom. A number of vendors offer solutions for unlocking machines without paying the ransom, including Symantec, Sophos and F-Secure. The best solution is to visit a local repair shop to wipe the machine clean and reinstall backup files and software.