Cybercriminals bribe victims with "ransomware"

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- How much would you pay if someone hijacked your computer and demanded a fee? It's called "ransomware" and the thieves hope you're willing to pay a lot.

"I clicked on a couple of sites -- started looking at pictures of Ernie, Elmo and all of a sudden then the screen froze up," a fraud victim named "Jeannine" said.

Jeannine was planning her son's second birthday party online when all of a sudden, her computer screen changed.

"Instead of looking at Ernie and Elmo, I am faced with what was 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, and I was subject to fines and mandatory imprisonment," Jeannine said.

Jeannine, a long-time attorney admits 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?" Jeannine said.

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, it usually involves going out to a Walgreens, Walmart and buying a prepaid card -- most often a GreenDot card or a MoneyGram card and then sending that information to the people who control this," U.S. Postal Inspector Dave Reardon said.

Postal inspectors say in some cases, there are blatant messages: "Your computer has been locked" and then "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," Reardon said.

Postal inspectors recommend when you set up a computer, always create two user accounts, so if one is blocked by con artists, you have a second entryway.

That is why Jeannine was able to regain control of her computer, but many 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," Reardon said.

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 solution which you will always be able to find on the internet. All anti-virus companies post free instructions and utilities to help users unblock their computers.