Beware of 'ransom ware'

Published On: Feb 18 2014 06:07:56 PM EST   Updated On: Feb 19 2014 06:20:00 AM EST

How much would you pay if someone hijacked your computer and demanded a fee?  Con artists behind the computer scam called "ransom ware" are hoping the answer is a lot.

"I clicked on a couple of sites; started looking at pictures of Ernie, Elmo and all of a sudden then the screen froze up," explained Jeannine.

She was planning for her son's two year-old birthday party online when all of a sudden her computer screen changed.

"Instead of looking at Ernie and Elmo I am faced with what reported to be the seal of the FBI and with that was a warning or a message," explained Jeannine. "It said that I had committed several federal offenses, I was subject to fines and mandatory imprisonment."

The attorney admits she panicked.

"I was horrified, and that is an understatement," Jeannine said. "The thought of having my bar card torn away from me after all that, I had no idea what I was doing. The thought of me sitting in jail, what is going to happen to my kids, my husband?"

After the initial shock, Jeannine knew there was something strange when she saw a payment option at the bottom of the site for $300.

"In order to 'unfreeze' your computer usually involves going out to a Walgreens, Wal-Mart and buying a prepaid card; most often a Green Dot card or a MoneyGram card and then sending that information to the people who control this," explained US Postal Inspector Dave Reardon.

Postal inspectors say in some cases there are blatant messages: "Your computer has been locked" then "How to unlock your computer" with instructions on sending payments.

"This is a home invasion and they have broken into your home and they have done it electronically and if we're not careful they will be able to get to the exact same things we're trying to protect with an alarm system on our house," said Reardon.

Postal inspectors recommend when you set up a computer always create two user accounts so if one way is blocked by con artists, you have a second entryway. That is why Jeannine was able to regain control of her computer but many others haven't been as lucky.

"If you're scared enough and you don't understand it's a scam you're going to lose your money is gone, your credit card will be maxed out," warned Jeannine.

Experts say the most important thing for ransomware victims is to not pay the cyber-criminals any money. You need to go to another computer and start searching for a solution, which you will always be able to find on the internet. All antivirus companies post free instructions and utilities to help users unblock their computers.