BOSTON, MA -- 2 Wants To Know has heard about the Microsoft scheme. It's when someone calls you and tells you your computer is sending an error message. They need remote access to fix it. Don't fall for it.
But a new tech scheme called ransomware freezes your computer, and says it'll stay frozen until you pay.
Jeannine was planning for her son's two year-old birthday party online when all of a sudden her computer screen changed. She said, "I clicked on a couple of sites; started looking at pictures of Ernie, Elmo and all of a sudden then the screen froze up. [...] 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. It said that I had committed several federal offenses, I was subject to fines and mandatory imprisonment."
The long time attorney admits she panicked. She said, "I was horrified… and that is an understatement. 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.
U.S. Postal Inspector Dave Reardon said, "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."
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.
Reardon said, "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."
Postal inspectors recommend when you set up a computer always create two user accounts. That way 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 she says she understands why 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."
Experts say the most important thing for ransomware victims is to not pay the cybercriminals. You need to go to another computer and start searching for a solution. You'll always be able to find one on the internet. All antivirus companies post free instructions and utilities to help users unblock their computers.