Q: Recently, notices began to pop up on my computer that I had a virus and asked me to call a number. Everybody told me not to call, so I turned off my computer. But then I started to get phone calls offering to clean up my computer, which was really messed up. Foolishly, I fell for it twice, paying $300 the first time and $200 the next. They knew they had an old lady they could scam. Finally, my son had his IT expert clean my computer for $48 and everything is fine, except I’m starting to get those phone calls again even though I’m told I don’t have a virus now. What can I do, who should I report this to and is there any way to get my money back?
D.L., of Belleville
A: Although your money is likely gone for good, don’t beat yourself up too badly, because you’re far from alone.
Just last spring, the WannaCry virus grabbed world headlines by infecting 200,000 computers in 150 countries. Owners were told the only way to access their data again was to pay a ransom in “bitcoin,” a nearly untraceable form of internet currency. (Apparently your scoundrels were less sophisticated.) Well, guess what? Just like you, many paid the ransom and wound up losing both their data and their money to these high-tech hijackers.
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It’s called “ransomware,” a type of malicious computer program (malware) that, once it enters your computer, “encrypts” your files, making them inaccessible. What is so frightening is that it can install itself in a flash without you even knowing it when you click on a corrupted e-mail attachment or simply visit a compromised website.
As Senior Master Sgt. James Tetrault, of the 837th Cyber Operations Squadron at Scott Air Force Base, told us last fall, the results can be devastating. While he could help people avoid future attacks, he often saw tax records, family photos and other important documents lost forever when he brought their machines back from the dead.
It’s almost enough to make you swear off the internet forever, but if you follow a few simple procedures, you can reduce your chances of becoming infected— and minimize the devastation if it does happen. Here are a few of the most important tips from Tetrault, the Federal Trade Commission and the FBI:
By now it should go without saying that you must install reputable anti-virus software, which will do regular scans of your computer and alert you to problems.
Keep all of your software (i.e., programs) updated. Companies constantly issue updates to protect their software against these rapidly evolving attacks. That’s why, for example, Microsoft has a “Patch Tuesday” at least once a month to send out those changes. Make sure you receive them either automatically or search for them regularly. It is thought that if all users had downloaded Microsoft’s WannaCry update two months earlier, they would have breezed through the outbreak unharmed. Do this for all of your trusted software providers, including, of course, your anti-virus software.
Think twice before clicking on email attachments, dowloading apps and visiting websites. It’s impossible to offer blanket advice, but if you don’t know the sender or if the website address or description looks strange, either avoid it or be extra wary. I suppose it’s like trying to define pornography: Hopefully, you’ll learn to know it when you see it. For my job, I sometimes visit dozens of websites a day. So far, I have not been stung.
Back up your data — every day if possible. I know this is difficult. I once bought an external hard drive and promised myself I faithfully would back up every file I changed. Within days, I already was becoming lax. That’s why I finally gave up and bought a subscription to Carbonite, which now backs up my files every night on their storage site while I sleep. For less than 15 cents a day, it (or any cloud-based storage provider) allows me to retrieve all my up-to-date data on any machine should I experience a crash or virus.
Both the FTC and FBI recommend you not pay ransom. As seen so often, there’s no guarantee the bad guys will release your data. Moreover, if you do offer to pay, they’ll know you haven’t backed up your data. This could increase the asking price, your files may be returned corrupted and, as this woman found out, you could become the target of continuing scams. It might be better to learn from experience and start over.
Finally, the FBI begs victims to report all such crimes to its Internet Crime Complaint Center. To file a complaint, go to www.ic3.gov/default.aspx. You should include the date of the infection, the name of the ransomware, how it occurred, the ransom amount asked and paid, phone numbers or addresses, and a victim impact statement. Or call the FBI office in St. Louis at 314-589-2500 for more information.
Limited space precludes additional tips (hang up on “computer techs” who call out of the blue, etc.), so for additional information, try www.ic3.gov/media/2016/160915.aspx and www.consumer.ftc.gov/search/site/ransomware. With a little work and awareness, you will enjoy the wonders of the internet with a healthy computer.
When was the first computer hard drive developed, how big was it and how much data could it store?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: In 1956, Chrysler began letting car owners go for a spin in more ways than one. In addition to simply hopping behind the wheel, you could also treat yourself to the latest in car audio — an in-dash record player! Yes, Chrysler teamed up with Columbia Records, which manufactured 42 special 7-inch, 162/3-rpm discs that played about 45 minutes of music. Not surprisingly, the option was yanked after one year. Still, Chrysler didn’t give up. In 1960, the company came back with an RCA phonograph that, placed upside-down, could play a stack of 12 45-rpm singles automatically. Given that even a moderate bump in the road could cause a skip, this one died after two years and was never seen again. Drivers would have to wait until the 8-track in 1968 for their next form of personal car audio. To see bandleader Lawrence Welk showing off the record player in a ’56 Dodge, go to www.uaw-chrysler.com/images/news/phono.htm.