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Posted: 6:00 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013

Holding your computer hostage for money?!

By Clark Howard

ClarkHoward.com


The worst ransomware to date is freezing up computers until consumers pay scammers hundreds of dollars to supposedly implement a fix.

Crypto-Locker is apparently making the rounds and encrypting all the files on your computer hostage until you pay criminals $300 for them to unlock your files, according to The Cleveland Plain Dealer. In some cases, even after you pay them, the crooks continue spying on you remotely with keyloggers.

At this point, there is no fix for Crypto-Locker. That's why it's important you don't get it in the first place. You know the usual routine: Don't click on attachments, don't watch unsolicited, keep your anti-virus up to date, etc.

The best advice I can give is this: Back up everything you have so you can abandon a computer if it's infected with Crypto-Locker. There are two ways you can do this. Either use a freemium back-up cloud service for data or use a back-up external drive. The latter is really cheap starting around $30.

The last instance of ransomware I reported was about a year ago. At that time, the Internet Crime Complaint Center said that Reveton malware was seizing up computers with pop-up windows branded with the FBI logo! The pop-up window typically warn the computer contains "child pornography, unlicensed materials or 'computer-use negligence,' according to The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

If someone is holding your computer hostage for money, never pay the ransom. There's no way to tell the scammers will do what they say and not load additional viruses on your computer. Second, you're rewarding bad behavior if you pay them.

Normally I talk about using free antivirus software to prevent something like this. But now the warning is that won't get it done. The recommendation I have is to contact a professional to clean your computer. Even if you're able to unfreeze your computer yourself, elements of the virus could remain behind.

Here's how to protect yourself going forward:

  • For basic protection, use anti-virus and anti-malware software and keep it up to date. See my Virus, Spyware and Malware Protection Guide for links to free options. 
  • Keep your browsers, applications and plug-ins up-to-date with the latest security patches and updates. Be sure to do this at home on your own secure connection.
  • When using WiFi at a hotel or other public hotspot, make sure you are using the real WiFi connection.  Some scammers try to lure people to a fake WiFi connection that can steal your info.
  • When using public wifi of any kind, don't access your financial institutions or do any kind of bank transaction--do that at home only!