Gene Pane’s computer abruptly stopped working, save for a jarring message that appeared on his screen.
“It was a warning that said I had downloaded a virus and had to pay $199 to get rid of it,” Pane, a retired business executive who lives in Carlsbad, said of the recent incident. “I needed the files on my computer, so I paid. The money won’t break me, but still …”
Pane had accidentally downloaded ransomware, a rapidly growing form of extortion in which hackers slyly load malicious software onto people’s computers — via emails, decoy ads, bogus news stories and code embedded in all manner of websites.
“It’s entirely possible that we’ll have far in excess of $1 billion in losses” worldwide related to ransomware, said Special Agent Chris Christopherson, who investigates cyber crimes out of the FBI’s field office in San Diego.
He was referring to the projected tally for 2016, which will take awhile to finalize. The figure for this year could turn out to be twice as much.
At least 190 types of ransomware currently exist, experts said. Once a malicious link is clicked, the virus encrypts the files on a person’s computer and freezes the home screen.
Victims then receive a message saying they have to pay a fee to regain control of their hijacked computers. In most cases, the ransom must be paid in bitcoins, a comparatively new international form of digital currency that’s hard for banks and law enforcement to trace.
The FBI said every hour, about 4,000 computers around the world become…
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