It was unlike any other hostage situation “Gerry” had ever seen or heard. As a single mother of three, her only option was to pay the ransom that she could ill-afford and hope for a positive outcome. Fortunately, her payment was accepted, and she regained access to the files on her computer. No, this is not a movie, starring Liam Neeson. Instead, this real- life thriller appears daily in homes across the country, when thousands of computer users get “Taken” by Ransomware – a very new and costly threat that locks up your files until you pay a fee (by Bitcoin) to regain access to your computer.

Since the New Year, I have been personally affected four times by hackers and that number will continue to increase as struggling countries continue to be populated by top-level, albeit unemployed developers, struggling to financially make ends meet. We have all received an email from someone we know, claiming to be stranded in some foreign location and recently robbed and desperate, begging for financial assistance. A close family member recently received a call from someone claiming to be her grandson in trouble and in need of thousands of dollars to be deposited immediately into an account. A quick-thinking bank teller, who instructed the individual to call her family, as the situation seemed amiss. The phone call saved thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first and only time she has been a target. It would surprise no one to learn that Florida is the hacking capital of the world. Given the large population of seniors, abundance of adult entertainment, and liberal state constitution, the sunshine state has been a breeding ground for cyber crime. To make sure you are not a victim follow these simple rules:

1) Do not open any email attachments unless you are expecting something from someone. Whatever you need to share can be uploaded to a protected site and shared via a link as opposed to a download. Downloading is bad – just remember that. That attachment your friend just sent may cost you thousands of dollars and a lot of headaches.

2) Call to confirm. My friend “Rory” sent an unexpected attachment the other day. Rather than opening it, I emailed her back. I quickly received two emails back from “her:” One telling me in broken English to open the attachment and another email that simply said “I’ve been hacked.” I quickly called Rory and walked her through the process of kicking out the hacker; however, I was shaken at the fact that I actually had an email exchange with someone that was looking to gain access to MY passwords, files, and other protected personal information.

3) Passwords. Change them frequently. Do not use the same one for all accounts. Do not store your it virtually. Do not share. This all seems like common sense -but it is not difficult to research you with the plethora of information that [you] share on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, it is easy for someone to learn personal information about you, including location, family,. It is faster for a hacker to learn about your family, hobbies, work, education, and recent vacations. Make up an alphanumeric password (letters and numbers- and special characters if appropriate) that you can easily remember. Play around with different capitalization and punctuation. EX: esuoM15:)

4) Do not trust email messages from retail and social media sites. This is a new one that I could have easily fallen for. Months ago I used to get emails about my Apple ID and that I needed to log into my account.

When I looked at the email address that the message came from, it was a .edu extension – very odd. Plugging that email into Google, I quickly learned it was a scam. I don’t have a Pay-Pal account, but I receive emails weekly telling me to change my password or to update my credit card. The most recent came from a very official looking LinkedIn email, which I dismissed -unfortunate a colleague of mine followed through on it and was instantly hacked. These are all official looking emails, and they redirect you to official looking sites- but you should always check the email address of the sender to verify the true origin. I have seen these emails come from large banks, Google, Apple, Pay-Pal, Amazon, Ebay and some government institutions. If you are told to change your password, do not do it from the email (login to the trusted sight).

5) Finally, do not give out any personal information online, unless it is a truly trusted site. Keep in mind you can make a quick phone call to any of the companies I listed above, or you can use a chat feature on their homepage to verify any email you received. Hackers are always trying to think of more clever and better ways to part you with your money. Please be vigilant, spread the word, share this article. We can shut these hackers down! After all, Liam Neeson can’t save everyone.