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by Ray Carlson

Q. I got an email message from the FBI saying I downloaded terrorist material and my computer has been locked to prevent this happening again. The message describes how I should pay a fine of $300 to resolve this situation. Should I pay the fine?

A. It appears you have been the victim of a malware program called Kovter. The malware searched the history of your browsing activity and identified some website you had visited that has porn or other questionable content. You then received the email from the FBI mentioning the visit to that website and the need to pay a fine to regain use of your computer. Many people are embarrassed about using the website mentioned and quickly pay the "fine." The message even warns you not to tamper with the evidence by trying to resolve the problem yourself.

Paying the fine will not do any good. Instead, if you have an up-to-date antivirus program, do a full scan. The software should locate the malware and help to eliminate it. If the computer is locked, you probably need to restart the computer in safe mode with networking. If you are using windows and do not have an antivirus program, this site lists several possibilities for different versions of Windows. And this website lists similar antivirus programs for Macs.

This problem is an example of what is called "ransomware." In each variation, criminals take control of your computer or tell you your computer has been corrupted. They offer to correct the problem if you pay them. Every few weeks a new version appears. We regularly hear about such programs but decided to respond to your question because it demonstrates how clever the criminals can be by trying to make you feel you did something wrong. Your first thought should not be guilt but protection. An up-to-date antivirus program and firewall should warn you if you start to download such malware and therefore avoid the problem.

Published: Courier 5/19/13 - Page 3C