Bad guys have a new way to scare people and take advantage of them. They are scaring people into paying a ransom, sometimes demanding the payment in cryptocurrency.

Here’s how it works. You get an email from someone claiming to have access to your account or embarrassing information from your browser history, maybe even a compromising picture. They may say they have your password, and even share it.

Here is a real example of a ransom threat:

I received an email threatening to release compromising info about websites I visited unless I make a Bitcoin payment of $866 within 48 hours.   It references a password that I don't recall using recently.  It looks like this is an extortion attempt/fraud.  

 - Alan L.

This is convincing and scary. It’s even scarier because most people don’t have the cryptocurrency the bad guys want.  There are steps you can take to protect yourself and evaluate if the threat is real. If you receive one of these ransom threats:

  • Change your password immediately. Even if the email references an old password you don’t use any more, change it. And don’t use the same password on multiple accounts. There are tips on creating strong passwords in this blog.
  • Do not reply to the email or click a link in the message. This will embolden the bad guy and could install malware on your computer. Follow this link to learn more about phishing.
  • Do not send money, cryptocurrency or gift cards.
  • If you have lost access to your account or phone, this does not necessarily mean the bad guy has taken over. They may have just forced a security lock-out by trying to break into your account too many times. Contact customer service or tech support for the account to evaluate and correct the situation. AT&T customers can visit www.att.com/esupport.

The demand for cryptocurrency payments also adds to the anxiety with these ransom scams. Most people do not have access to cryptocurrency or understand how it works. Bad guys want it because it is not traceable or insured, so you cannot recover it when it’s gone. It is also valued around the world. It’s likely the bad guy is not in the U.S. and the odd dollar demands, like the $866 above, are based on their national currency exchange rate.

Bottom line – if you get a ransom threat like this, follow the steps above, because it is most likely just an attempt to scare you out of your money.