| PAY OR PERISH
London, June 2: A virus that seizes control of personal computer files and demands ransom money from the owner has been unleashed on the Internet.
Victims of a 'ransomware' attack are unable to get access to their hard drives unless they pay off the hackers.
In some versions of the fraud, computer users are told to buy drugs from an online chemist in exchange for a password that will free their files. In others, they are instructed to transfer money to an overseas bank account to prevent the program wiping the files.
The fraud emerged in the US last year and has now appeared in Britain.
One of its first victims was Helen Barrow, a 40-year-old nurse from Littleborough, near Rochdale. She was distraught when she discovered that a folder, protected with a 30-digit password, had replaced her computer files.
She also discovered a new file on her computer desktop named 'INSTRUCTIONS HOW TO GET YOUR FILES BACK'. It told her she would be given the password to access her files if she bought drugs from an online pharmacy.
Barrow, who works as a senior sister at Rochdale Infirmary, said: 'When I realised what had happened, I just felt sick to the core. I was in shock. It was a horrible feeling and I thought I was going to lose all of my work.'
Her computer became infected when she opened an e-mail attachment that claimed to be an anti-virus program. The virus that attacked her computer is known as Archiveus. Barrow contacted the police and a computer expert who recovered some of the files.
Earlier versions of the virus instructed victims to pay the ransom through online websites such as eGold or Webmoney. Others demand payments to overseas accounts.
Greg Day, a security expert with McAfee, said: 'Sadly, we are seeing more of this type of attack in recent months. It is a trend that started off in the business community and has now extended more into the consumer space.
'If people are effectively to protect against these kind of attacks, we would recommend they get a good anti-virus software, have a firewall that controls what information people can access on your computer, and keep up to date with the security patches. If people find themselves being blackmailed, they should contact the police. They should also contact their software security vendor who might be able to recover their files.'