It started with a strange file extension.
Then, a giant message.
"When we turned on her computer we got a big window that said, 'warning your machine has been taken over by ransomware,'" explained James Ullery, who soon learned his company was being held hostage, for a price.
"You cant do anything, you're dead in the water," Ullery tells ABC Action News.
Ullery was the victim of a computer virus commonly known as "ransomware" that literally encrypts your own data, like pictures and documents, and only gives you the ability to unlock that encryption if you pay a ransom fee.
Entire towns, police departments, and hospitals, like Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in California, are among the victims in the past year.
"The quickest and most efficient way to restore our systems and administrative functions was to pay the ransom and obtain the decryption key," said Medical Center CEO Allen Stefanek to the Associated Press last month, admitting the center forked over $16,664 to free their data.
Ullery's small business called LEDtampa, which makes and repairs digital message displays, was held hostage in 2015.
"If someone was to just walk up to you and take 500 dollars out of your pocket," says Ullery, shaking his head. "You work hard for your money so you don't like having to pay a ransom to get back what's yours."
Ullery didn't want to pay, of course, but after talking to cyber security professionals at the Clearwater-based company called KnowBe4, the longtime LED-specialist decided to pay up, and hours later, he had his data back.
Ullery's colleague at work thinks she accidentally downloaded the virus.
"She was searching for a wedding venue for her daughter's wedding," explains Ullery. "She downloaded something sending her computer quivering. Something happened at that point, she thinks that's where it came from."
The FBI estimates about $24 Million in losses for American "ransomware" victims in 2015, with that number expected to be much higher in 2016 in part because the ransom demands are designed to be just small enough to encourage people to pay up.
KnowBe4 has a "Ransomware Hostage Rescue Manual" you can download here. It includes information on how to protect yourself from getting the malware virus that is affecting small business owners like Ullery all over the country.
Ullery says KnowBe4 helped him pay the ransom, which had to be sent in Bitcoins, and helped him set up his computers to avoid another "ransomware" hostage situation.
How The Virus Works
"It encrypts your personal files with bank level security, and there is almost no way to break the encryption," say experts.
It will also start a timer ticking down, usually it gives you 7 days to pay the ransom. If you don't pay it in 7 days, then the amount doubles.
So how can you protect yourself?
- Don't open suspicious e-mails.
- Be very careful opening email attachments.
- Back up your files and photos to the cloud or an external hard drive.