'Hackers blackmailed me with ransomware for Bitcoin' - what happened when a Northern Ireland businesswoman clicked a link on Facebook
Just like an episode of The Good Wife, Shirley Palmer was forced to pay £350 to prevent precious files on her PC being destroyed by an extortion gang’s virus
A Northern Ireland businesswoman was forced to hand over hundreds of pounds after hackers took over her computer and held it to ransom.
Co Antrim woman Shirley Palmer was faced with a countdown clock, asking for cash in return for access to her computer.
Hackers corrupted and encrypted all her personal files, after Ms Palmer - who runs a business-coaching firm in London - clicked a seemingly innocuous YouTube link on Facebook.
They then demanded two bitcoins in return for regaining access - equivalent to around £350.
And she said the entire ordeal, which lasted for two days, left her unable to sleep after her "privacy was invaded".
Hackers pick out targets using so-called ransomware, whereby a malicious programme is downloaded to a user's computer before forcing the unsuspecting owner to cough up cash.
"It was just a link on Facebook, and to me, it looked like a YouTube clip," Ms Palmer said. "I felt it was secure and didn't think otherwise. But my machine then did a kind of shudder, and flashed."
After restarting her PC and running virus software, a countdown clock popped up, giving her 90 hours to send over the cash.
"I had two emotions; first it was, 'Oh my God, why is this happening to me?' Then it was one of laughter - I'd seen something like this in the Good Wife.
"The FBI has been involved in this sort of thing before.
"Every single file and photograph was encrypted. I was going to lose everything if I didn't pay up. Our most precious things such as family photos were my concern over and above anything else.
"And there were also my business details; this is my business computer."
Ms Palmer then went about the process of buying two units of the digital currency bitcoin to pay the hackers who held her computer, and work, to ransom. The incident happened just last week.
"You can't just go and buy two bitcoins. The person I was buying from had to validate me. They needed photo ID and a card. They needed to know I was a real person. And they still wanted a phone call. I told them: I've been scammed."
She then transferred the funds across, and in less than 30 minutes, had begun to get access to her computer's files.
"It began to be released within 30 minutes, but it took over a day to get everything up and running," she said.
Ms Palmer contacted the police to file a report, before passing on the details to Action Fraud.
And the Glenarm woman said she felt her life had been violated. "When I sat down, after it was finished, I felt like my whole privacy had been invaded," she said. "My whole business is about transformational and business coaching, and on the Friday morning after it was all over, I couldn't lift my head off the pillow - it was the stress in dealing with it."
Ransomware is designed to extort money from users by holding files, such as photographs, hostage until a ransom fee is paid to get them back. The software - which can be sent through any number of ways including fake links disguised as legitimate - sniffs out files before encrypting them. One of the most prevalent malicious programmes used to target computer users is known as Cryptolocker.