LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Every 30 seconds, a computer gets infected with ransomware, according to the FBI.
It's a computer threat many people have never heard of, but it's the one tech experts are most worried about.
Hospitals, police departments, major companies and individual users all have been targeted.
A local businessman said he became a victim last year.
"It just states that you have been infected by malware," said Jim Steilberg, who owns Steilberg String Instruments.
The ransomware virus locked his files, holding them hostage and told him to pay thousands of dollars or they'd be lost forever.
"I was distraught, to say the least," Steilberg said.
He went to Steve Schardein, a tech specialist and the owner of Triple-S Computers.
"It literally will take you out and it is usually not possible to recover your data," Schardein said. "They can't read their stuff: pictures, documents, anything."
Schardein said ransomware comes from two main sources, the first of which is email attachments from unknown senders.
"You can't ever open email attachments from people you don't know or you don't trust," Schardein said. "They're getting very good with their social
engineering and tricking people into opening them."
The other main source of ransomware is flaws in programs that hackers exploit. Schardein suggests always doing those annoying software updates which
usually patch those flaws and help protect computers.
"You can't rely on your anti-virus software," Schardein said. "It's more or less a safety net and that's it."
The FBI said ransomware attacks increased 300 percent in just the past year, and is the fastest-growing type of computer malware.
"The problem is it's so successful financially for the attackers," Schardein said.
For businesses, ransomware can be in the thousands or millions of dollars. The FBI said ransomware was on pace to be a billion-dollar business in 2016, with more than $250 million in payments in just the first four months. For individual users, payments can are typically between $300 and $500, but are paid using anonymous bitcoin currency.
"They try to make it 'affordable' enough to where people will do it on a whim," Schardein said.
Schardein got Steilberg's files back, but that's not always the case.
"I thought it was curtains for a while," he said.
The No. 1 tip: Always have backups.
"You will lose your hard drive to something at some point," Schardein said.
Some hackers have turned ransomware into such a lucrative business that they actually have customer service lines to call to help get your data back
after you pay up. The FBI strongly advises against paying the fees. You still may not get your files back and it encourages more hackers to do it.