Bamboozled: December 14, 2015

The ominous message comes from the FBI.

“Your cell phone has been locked. We have recorded your online movements, including your browser and email history. To avoid serious legal action, call this number.”

Let’s get this part out of the way. If the FBI suspected you of illegal activity or otherwise had questions about your cell phone usage, you can be sure you wouldn’t receive a message about it. Law enforcement could be investigating you, sure, but it certainly wouldn’t let you know until authorities show up at your door with a pair of metal bracelets.

And they certainly wouldn’t ask you for money to unlock your phone, which is what happens if you call the number provided.

The FBI message is a form of ransomware.

Bamboozled has warned about this scam before.

The scam is more widespread with computers and laptops, but several recent studies have found an uptick in similar scams for smartphones, and scamwatchers have ramped up warnings.

The con works in the same way, whatever device you use.

It starts when you receive an email or click on a link that is a Trojan horse of sorts. Sometimes the link appears to be by a trusted source, and other times it’s one of those “You can’t miss this video!” scams. It could also be a link posted on a social media site.

By clicking, you unknowingly download a virus that locks your device at some point in the near future.

Your screen will be stuck on a graphic that warns you about the lock, and it tells you who to call to have your machine unlocked.

The FBI impersonation is a popular one, but other hucksters pretend to be Microsoft, Apple, or your anti-virus software.

Recent reports show an increase in ransomware attacks on iPhones or iPads that use the Safari web browser.

These impersonate not law enforcement, but a system crash.

“Warning IOS – Crash Report. Due to a third party application your phone iOS crashed,” it says.

Then it gives you a “tech support” number to call so you can fix the problem.

Of course “tech support” can fix it — for a fee.

But if you pay the money, the scammers will mark you as a target. If you pay once, they believe, you’re more likely to pay again, and you can expect your device to be locked once again.

KEEPING YOUR PHONE SAFE

We hope your computers have updated virus protection software, but we’re guessing your smartphone may be vulnerable.

If your smartphone is ever locked, start by contacting your carrier — not the scammer or the “tech support” phone number scammers use to masquerade as real help.

Your carrier may be able to unlock the phone.

It won’t charge you a fee for it, either.

One way you can make the fix — with or without help from your carrier — is to restore the phone to an earlier date, and at the worst, to restore it to factory settings.

The National Cyber Security Alliance recommends that you keep the software on your mobile devices current. Be sure to download security upgrades and update your apps and operating systems.

But that’s not enough.

Even if you update security upgrades or anti-virus software regularly, new ransomware scams pop up at any time — often faster than security experts can detect the new threats. The anti-virus people have to break the sophisticated encryption used for these locking programs, and they’re sometimes just not fast enough.

That means you need to be proactive with your smartphone.

“Be overly cautious when clicking on links in emails, including email from names you recognize,” said Verizon spokesperson Chuck Hamby.”If you are not expecting an email with an attachment, do not click. Call the sender if you know them and ask if it is legitimate.”

He recommends you think twice before downloading new applications for your mobile devices that are from unknown sources on the internet.

Before you download a new app that may access information on your phone, make sure you understand what permission you’re giving and what it could mean to your phone’s security.

If you’re using public Wi-Fi or another unsecured network, steer clear of accessing web sites such as your bank, and don’t make online purchase that require you to input a credit card number. You might as well just hand over your private information to a fraudster.

Because there are new frauds coming up all the time, your best protection is to be smart and to save and back up any important data on your phone — frequently.

“The most important way to counter any attack is to back up your devices and computers often,” Verizon’s Hamby said.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.