It’s fall, the season of Halloween, and Slate recently ran a truly terrifying story. It centered on the rise of “ransomware,” a new form of malware that is truly creepy, and, sad to say, quite effective. According to Slate, this is how this kind of hack works: You either click on an infected web page or a link in an email message and your computer screen turns gray. A browser window then appears complete with the FBI logo in its top left corner. Under that is a live webcam feed with a picture of a face, yours.

That isn’t even the scariest part. A message will then come up on your screen telling you that you have violated copyright laws and have two choices. One, pay a fine within 48 to 72 hours, or two, go to prison for up to three years. You are also told that if you do not pay your computer will be locked indefinitely.

A real threat

As expected, the criminal charges bit of this scam is fake, but the threat of coping with a completely locked computer is real, at least based on a senior security advisor quoted by Slate. That begs the question, should you simply pay the fine—usually in the $100 range—and hope that the hackers behind this scam unlock your computer? Maybe not, according to the Slate story. After all, once these criminals have your money, what incentive do they have to actually unlock your computer? And how do you know that they won’t target your computer again in the future even after you pay up?

True protection

So how do you protect yourself? The same way you always have, with up-to-date antivirus software. Also, pay attention to what sites you visit and don’t click on links in emails from people you don’t know.

If you do fall victim to one of these ransomware attacks, you will have to enlist the help of a computer security expert. You can even contact the real FBI and file a complaint at www.ic3.gov.

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