Jesse Pipher, 73, of Sarasota, uses his laptop computer every day. He surfs the web, pays bills and keeps up with friends on Facebook. But recently, his webcam snapped his picture without his knowledge. Suddenly, he was staring back at himself.
"The camera came on, my picture came up," Pipher said.
Then things got even scarier. A logo for the Federal Bureau of Investigation popped up and accused him of the unthinkable: child pornography.
"It just scared me," Pipher said. "I'm figuring the government is going to come knock on my door, take my computer, lock me up."
But it wasn't the FBI. It was computer hackers using a virus called ransomware.
The same thing happened to Lori Storer, of Gulfport.
"I was in tears," Storer said. "I was crying. I was so scared."
The logo on both of their screens looked official and cited laws. Storer was particularly concerned about the disturbing allegations. The hackers alleged that Storer's computer was used to view child pornography and child abuse. The hacker's message even alleged that the computer was used to send messages with "terrorist motives."
The only people who use my computer are myself and my daughter, and there's no way on God's green earth that we would even think of looking at anything like that."
At the bottom of the screen was a message: it would take $200 to unlock the computer and avoid arrest.
"If the FBI was going to come get me, they would be on my door step," Storer said. "They wouldn't be charging me $200 to unlock my computer."
The hackers left instructions to put money on a pre-paid debit card and give them the numbers. Storer and Pipher didn't fall for that, but it took computer experts to remove the virus.
Computer repair companies across the Bay area say they treat computers with this virus about three times a day. Getting rid of the virus, they say, isn't easy.
David Couvertier, spokesman for the FBI said ransomware is a scam that the FBI is fighting. The hackers are difficult to track down, though, because they could be anywhere in the world, as long as they have computer access. The best way to fight the scammers, he said, is by educating the public.
"It's very uncomfortable to see that somebody has control of your computer, to the point of being able to use your own computer against you," Couvertier said.
Perhaps the most disturbing is the access the hackers get to your personal information. Not only can the hackers take your picture with the webcam, but they can also use the camera to watch you, or even record video of you or your family.
"That's why we suggest computers should not be in bedrooms," Couvertier said.
Other than virus scans, which don't always catch ransomware, Couvertier says there's not much you can do to prevent the virus. But once you have it, he says, don't pay the hackers. If you do, they may unlock your computer. Some scammers do, he said. But they may not, he said. Plus, when people pay, that encourages hackers to try to scam someone else.
Typically, it takes an expert to rescue your computer. In the meantime, do as Pipher did, and cover up your webcam .
"They might get into my computer, but they're not going to get my face again."
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