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'Ransomware' locks up computers

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A tricky new computer virus is making the rounds. Infected users see pop-up messages that claim to be from the FBI and threaten people with a fine or prison unless they pay up. The virus, meanwhile, locks up the computer, holding it and the user hostage, thus its name: ransomware.

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Computer users pick up this virus by clicking on malicious links in e-mails and messages sent through social media sites or by visiting compromised websites. From there, a notice such as the following appears: Your PC is blocked due to the illegal viewing or distribution of copyrighted content. To unblock the computer, you must pay the fine of $100.

The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) offers people tips on how to avoid ransomware and advice on what to do if they become the next victim.

People who have been hit by ransomware report seeing different versions of these fraudulent warning messages. Some ask for larger amounts of money and some claim to be from local police or the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Users are told they need to pay requested amounts via a prepaid Green Dot MoneyPak cash card, which is difficult to trace, or they will be locked out of their computers permanently and face possible criminal charges.

While it's true that computer users will remain locked out until they get expert help, the threat of legal action is nothing more than a bluff.

People with infected computers will want to have the issue addressed as quickly as possible. It will likely take a computer repair expert or firm to restore functionality and remove any lurking malware.

The BBB advises people not to pay the scammers. Computer security experts are confident that paying the scammers will not get the computer unfrozen. In fact, some believe that might just open the door to increased demands. People should also ignore any requests to provide personal or financial information.

To avoid ransomware, consumers should:

• Make sure their computer has the most recent updates installed for spam filters, anti-virus and anti-spyware software and a secure firewall.

• Avoid questionable websites, and don't click on any suspicious links.

• Be aware that social networks are used to transmit and spread this virus and others like it.

It's also a good idea to keep all files backed up. If a computer becomes infected by ransomware, contact a computer expert or repair firm immediately and file a complaint with the FBI at ic3.gov.

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