There are many variants of ransomware, all of which begin by locking you out of your own machine. The next phase: trying to blackmail, intimidate, or otherwise spook you into forking over cash. You probably shouldn’t do it. But it’s easy to see why a lot of people do.
The version I described in the first paragraph is the product of a virus called Reveton, which you can contract either by clicking a malicious link or visiting an infected website, which triggers an automatic download. Beneath the video feed, which registers the surprise on your face as you recognize yourself, are your computer’s IP address and hostname and an urgent message: “Your computer has been locked!” Scroll further and you’ll find yourself accused of possessing illegally downloaded files in violation of federal copyright laws. A new iteration claims that you’re in violation of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act—which, as serious netizens know, never actually became law.
The crime, you’re told, is punishable by a fine or up to three years in prison. There’s only one way to unlock your computer, according to the warning on your browser, and that’s to pay up. And if you don’t pay the specified “fine” within 48 or 72 hours—often by purchasing a prepaid cash card such as Green Dot’s Moneypak, which makes the transaction hard to trace—it claims that you’ll be locked out of your machine permanently and face criminal charges to boot.
The criminal charges are bogus, of course, but the threat of being permanently locked out of your files is real, says Chet Wisniewski, senior security adviser at the data-security firm Sophos.