New virus holds your computer files ransom

TRI-CITIES, Wash. -- You hear about computers getting hacked and often think it won't happen to you.

But a new computer virus is collecting even the savviest victims. It allows scammers to lock every file on your computer and hold them ransom until you pay to unlock them.

Scammers spend their days working to stay one step ahead of you.
Ripping you off from thousands of miles away. And now local IT professionals are warning about new ways your computer could be vulnerable.

"What they're doing is holding your files hostage for money," says Shawn Winget, owner of WinTech computer services.

He's already seen several cases of a system-crippling virus in his store alone.

Shawn says unsuspecting users open an email attachment that looks like it's legit, from UPS or an airline, and then the virus takes over.

"It searches your computer and any hard drives that are attached to it for documents and pictures, and other important type files, probably Excel files and it adds 2048 bit government level encryption to the files, making them completely inaccessible," Shawn continued.

And the only way you can get those files back?
Paying the scammers 300 bucks for the electronic key.

"Without the key, it's unbreakable." Shawn added.

Our own Action News Anchor, Frances Watson, had a similar virus take over her computer a couple months ago. She thinks it got in by leaving her web cam plugged in.

Frances opted against paying the scammers to unlock her files.

"I try not to leave my computer running too much because I feel if I leave the computer running, I feel it's kind of like a portal for people to come in and hack through this. It's kinda creepy," Frances says.

It's creepy, and it's illegal.

Police say this is still extortion. But they don't want you paying up, either.

"I don't want to see people contribute to a criminal enterprise and if you decide to pay it, that's in essence, what you're doing," say Richland Police Captain Mike Cobb.

So what are your options?

Police hope you'll file a report with them and they can investigate.
But the criminal could be anywhere in the world. You've heard it before and you'll hear it again, never, ever open an email from someone you don't know.

IT professionals say the best way to stay safe is by running a virus scan on any suspicious email attachments.

Once the virus gets on your computer, it can be removed, but your files will still be rendered useless without the key to unlock them.