You're wandering around the internet, enjoying your search for banana nut bread recipes, when suddenly your screen flashes.
Before you know it, there's a very official-looking page with the actual FBI logo at the top filling your screen.
The message tells you that your computer has been locked and frozen by the Federal Bureau of Investigation because you've been violating copyright laws and downloading copyrighted material, or have downloaded child pornography on your system.
The message goes on to tell you that the only way your computer can be unlocked is by paying a fine to the FBI. In the most recent version, the fine is $200, and can only be paid by a MoneyPak or other pre-paid card or money order. In some instances, the warning tells you specifically which store to go to (the one that recently hit a local Mesquite resident instructed them to get the MoneyPak at Walgreens).
You can't exit out of the message. If you turn the computer off, the message returns when you turn it back on.
It also warns that if you don't send the MoneyPak within a certain time frame, you'll be arrested and further charges will be enforced.
Don't do it.
This is a scam, and a pretty successful one.
According to the FBI website (the REAL one, not the one purported in the scam letter), this is called "ransomware," and it has become more common recently. To see the actual FBI report, go to http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2012/august/new-internet-scam
The FBI recommends that, if your computer is hit with this, contact the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx to file a complaint.
However, that won't get your computer unlocked.
As the FBI recommends, you should probably contact a computer professional to come out and remove the ransomware, especially because the behind-the-scenes malware can continue to play games with your private information, including bank info and passwords.
But if you want to try it yourself, here are some things to try.
First, you have to get into your computer. To do this, you have to get to "Safe Mode."
To get into "Safe Mode," restart your computer. (Turn it off by holding the on/off button for 6-8 seconds).
When the computer begins to spin up, begin tapping the F8 key about twice a second until a screen comes up that lists several "Safe Mode" options.
Scroll down and select "Safe Mode."
The computer will run a long list of drivers, then it will come up with your normal icons (although they may be in different places, and probably larger than usual).
Once you're in, you want to run MalwareBytes, a free program found at http://www.malwarebytes.org/products/malwarebytes_free/. If you don't already have it on your computer, you can try to download it (although most of the time, you can't get on the internet in Safe Mode). If necessary, download the program using another computer, copy it onto a flash drive, then manually install it.
Let MalwareBytes run a full scan. It might take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.
Once it's done, it should find at least two infected files. Tell MalwareBytes to remove the offending files.
After that, run a full scan of your anti-virus. If you don't have an anti-virus program already installed, do the following:
1. Hold your left hand flat over the center of the keyboard, palm down, with your index finger hovering over (but not touching) the "g" key.
2. Raise your right hand to shoulder level, as if being sworn in at court.
3. Rapidly slap your left hand with your right hand. Not hard enough to break any bones, but hard enough to reinforce the message in an unforgettable way that you should NEVER operate a computer without an anti-virus program.
Once your hand stops hurting, go ahead and download the free version of AVG or Avast Anti-Virus. Once you have it, install it and run a full scan.
It might also be a good idea to download, install, and run Spybot Search and Destroy, another free program found at http://download.cnet.com/Spybot-Search-Destroy/3000-8022_4-10122137.html.
Once you've run these programs, you can restart your computer normally and the FBI message should be gone.
“The Computer Dude” is a weekly help column published every Thursday at www.MesquiteCitizen.com. It is provided by Computer Help, an award-winning computer firm in Mesquite since 2005, which offers computer tutoring, training, troubleshooting, and repair for individuals, retirees, and small businesses. If you have a question or would like to see a particular topic discussed in a future column, you can send an e-mail to email@example.com. You can also find other useful information on their website at www.CompuHelpUS.com. If you need help with your computer, call Computer Help at 346-6357.