As Americans learn more about government surveillance programs, the Better Business Bureau said it gives computer hackers a good opportunity to strike.
Imagine you're surfing the Web and you receive a message, claiming to be from the FBI. The message accuses you of committing a crime (usually illegal downloads or looking at child pornography). It says you've been caught, and you must pay a fine or go to jail.
"They call it 'hostageware' because they're actually asking for a ransom of sorts," said Gary Watson, a computer repair expert at Computech in Idaho Falls.
Watson said it's not just the FBI seal on the message that makes the threat look official. Hackers can gain access to a user's webcam, take a picture of the user and mount it on the fake warning.
"It basically is a scare tactic to scare people into paying the money," Watson said.
Watson said since word of the National Security Agency's confidential surveillance programs got out, he's had to fix more cases of hostageware than he did in the six months prior to that.
"Scam artists love to take advantage of what's hot in the news," said Dale Dixon, a spokesman for the Better Business Bureau. "If the FBI really wanted to capture you, they're not going to give you a warning and they're not going to give you an opportunity -- in fact, no government agency gives you an opportunity to pay a fine upfront to avoid being arrested."
Even if a user does not wire the hundreds of dollars the hackers ask for, it doesn't meant the hackers still can't get into a computer that user's computer.
"We tell people to safe search," Watson said, warning everyone to avoid sites that would lead to the malicious pop-ups. "Go to your reputable websites; your Yahoos, your Bings -- things like that."
If your computer gets infected with hostageware, the Better Business Bureau said you should disconnect it from the Internet and take it to a trusted computer specialist.