How much would you pay if someone hijacked your computer and demanded a fee? The con artists behind the scam called "Ransom Ware" are hoping the answer is a lot.
Hand over keyboard of the laptop in server room
"I clicked on a couple of sites; started looking at pictures of Ernie, Elmo and all of a sudden then the screen froze up," says one victim named Jeannine.
Jeannine was planning her son's two-year-old birthday party online when all of the 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. It said that I had committed several federal offenses, I was subject to fines and mandatory imprisonment."
The attorney says she panicked.
"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.
"In order to 'unfreeze' your computer usually involves going out to a Walgreens, Wal-Mart and buying a prepaid card; most often a Green.com card or a MoneyGram card and then sending that information to the people who control this," says U.S. Postal Inspector Dave Reardon.
Postal inspectors say, in some cases, there are blatant messages such as "your computer has been locked" and "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," says Reardon.
Postal inspectors recommend when you set up a computer always create two user accounts. If one is blocked by con artists, you have a second entryway. Jeannine used the strategy to regain control of her computer, but 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," she says.
Experts say the most important thing for Ransom Ware victims is to not pay the cybercriminals any money. You need to go to another computer and start searching for a solutions, 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.