‘Ransomware’ scam leaves victims powerless


(Stock image/Credit: John R. Coughlin/CNN)

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Manchester, Tenn. — Police said hackers have found a way to take over smart phones and extorts owners using pornographic images.

This new scam leaves victims virtually powerless. The message reportedly appears on smart phones out of nowhere and looks very serious.

“It quotes even United States criminal code statutes of what’s been violated,” said Frank Watkins, an investigator with the Coffee County Sheriff’s Office.

What the message says next is even scarier.

“This phone has been found to have accessed explicit or pornographic images and we can take care of this for $500,” Watkins said.

The so-called “ransomware” is now being sent to people’s phones along with child pornography. Owners are unable to delete the images. The message says it can make the images go away for a price.

The scare tactic often works because people are too afraid to go to police.

“How am I going to explain this on my phone and come up with the story of, hey, somebody took over my phone and planted these images,” Watkins said.

The virus asks victims to pay with a Green Dot MoneyPak card, making it difficult to track down and prosecute the scammers.

“A lot of times, these people are in those jurisdictions or areas where we don’t have extradition treaties with them to extradite folks in violation of this,” Watkins said.

Police said victims should not pay as there’s no guarantee the hackers will unlock your phone. Watkins said the scammers also already have all of your personal information.

“It listed the item number on the phone, the make, model, ESN number for the phone, the contact number listed for her mother,” he said.

Coffee County investigators have contacted the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the phone companies, who said they have never heard of this before. They are working to learn as much as possible.

“It’s terrifying,” Watkins said. “We’re a technological world now. We depend too much on basic technology and it’s vulnerable.”

If caught, the scammers will not only face charges for extortion, but also for distributing child pornography.

In this case, the victim was a 12-year-old girl. She saw the disturbing images. She said she was watching a music video on YouTube and walked away. When she came back, she found the message.

Investigators said to avoid falling victim, keep your phone settings so that data cannot be downloaded without your permission.


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