By Scott Baughman

Imagine this scene – you get an email purportedly from a friend or family member with the whimsical subject line “Re: Hilarious cat video” on a crisp fall day. Being the kind of person who A: watches funny videos and B: likes cats, naturally you click on it and try to load up that video.

 

But to your dismay, there is no video, just a rolling mess of what looks like mangled computer code. You delete the email and think nothing else of it.

A few hours later you come back to your machine and see the terrible truth of what just happened. Your computer now runs like molasses seeping from a tree in Vermont in December and every so often it shuts down completely demanding you restart it. Later, you notice some funds missing from your online bank account and weird charges from eBay showing up on your credit card statement.

 

Yep, you unwittingly downloaded and installed a computer virus.

 

When the concept of a computer virus first came about back in the 1980s, it was a specific kind of software designed to hurt the system. Catching them was a lot harder back in the day as well. But in 2015, the definition and the method of transmission for viruses have grown exponentially. Now, it’s shorthand for malicious code that can be out to harm your system, make more copies of itself and send them out to all your contacts or connect to your bank account and rob you in the virtual world.

 

The “Hilarious cat video” was actually a way to get you to install the virus. This type of attack has been known about, but recently the virus it downloads can be QUITE a pain with something known not as “ransomware” making the rounds.

 

Ransomware is malware that locks you out of your files and computer programs until you contact a particular group of hackers or criminals who demand you pay up or never have access again. In 2014, according to FBI statistics, a ransomware program called “Cryptolocker” infected the files of some 400,000 people, mostly Americans. Their screen displayed a message telling them to contact this group and pay $300 or their computer or laptop would remain forever locked. The FBI says only a tiny fraction of people paid “ransom” to these jokers, but law enforcement estimates the hackers still made off with a cool $4 million.

 

Experts call it a “cyber stick up” with the bad guys threatening your data – if not your life. But in the cyberworld, what’s the difference?

 

The ransomware has already begun to mutate. Another group has decided to take the “threat” of ransomware and make their own, less technical version of it. I’m talking about an unholy union between two of the things that are the scourge of the Internet – ransomware and pop up ads. Lately, I’ve been getting reports from friends and family of a popup ad on random websites that appears on screen with accompanying audio set to endlessly play. The popup ad warns the user that vicious software has infected their computer – Mac or PC, as this is a popup it doesn’t care what system you have – and the system has been locked down to prevent further infection and damage. Audio plays with an annoying klaxon or loudspeaker voice saying things like “Alert, your computer is at risk!” over and over. The message instructs the user to call a 1-800 number to get the matter cleared up and looks very official. Closing the window causes the message to hang out in the system memory and the audio keeps blaring regardless of whether your web browser is still visible!

Imagine my shock when I found such a message assaulting my PC-based gaming rig just last month! Thankfully, I recognized it for what it was and used a judicious “Force Quit” command on Google Chrome web browser. This nuclear option did make the warning klaxons shut up, but I did have to be very cautious about restarting the web browser.

 

If you find yourself facing down one of these blaring audio popup ransomware ads, you should under NO CIRCUMSTANCE call this 1-800 number. The thieves operating it will use it to find a way to commandeer your computer under the guise of helping you get rid of the virus. There is no virus. It is all a clever ruse to make you THINK there is one so you will call the scammers for “help” and they can then access your system. Instead, issue a force quit command – or simply hit the power button and restart your machine.

 

And as always, make sure you use an up-to-date and powerful anti-virus program such as Norton Antivirus or Kaspersky.

Until next time, let’s try to keep a clean Internet out there, folks.