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It is a real problem, although probably not particularly common in light of the hundreds of millions of people online. Of course, relative rarity doesn’t mean jack when you are the one that is struck by lightning. Cyrptolocker is the most widely known example of ransomware, and it is estimated to have brought in millions of dollars in “ransom” payments from victims, $300 at a time. It encrypts the contents of the hard drive, as well as files on external drives or network storage systems. In return for the “ransom” payment, the victim is provided the key. If you don’t pay within 72 hours, the window for payment closes, and you are left with a bunch of encrypted garbage.
Ransomware appears to be a real thing. Security vendor Symantec last year infiltrated one ransomware syndicate and estimated that it was generating at least $5 million annually. At $300 a pop -- the standard shakedown price -- that's nearly 17,000 victims a year. And that's one ransomware syndicate.