Ransom ware crypto-locker: Hackers can hold your data hostage, you can only save it if you pay

If crooks stole your family's most precious photos, would you be willing to pay to get them back?

Computer viruses known as 'ransom ware' can do just that.

Like many moms, Loretta Barbee documents her family's life in pictures.

She's grateful for those she framed, because now that's all that's left.

A virus locked up her computer and then encrypted thousands of her photos from the past seven years.

Now, someone, somewhere is holding her photos for ransom.

At first, the hackers sent a message demanding $500.

Four days later, the ransom shot up to $1,000.

And if she doesn't pay, they'll disappear forever.

A technology savvy friend worked on the computer for three days.

He was able to remove the virus but couldn't remove the encryption on the photos.

And then the virus returned.

Barbee's husband, Don, says he was shocked by how ruthless the hackers are.

"It just feels so mean, you read the language of those messages they send you, and it says your pictures will be permanently lost," said Barbee.

The Barbee's computer is infected by something called crypto-locker.

Computer security expert Tom Perricone says, "Typically, it's a 256-bit encryption, so it would take years and years to decrypt that, and you only typically have 30 to 60 days to get your files back, so it's just not possible."

Perricone's company Shield Watch has software for business clients that catches the crypto-locker virus before it finishes it's attacks.

But once you get the ransom message, it's too late.

"Really the only way to prevent it is to not open attachments from people you don't know," said Perricone.

Beyond that, Perricone recommends backing up all data on an external hard-drive and make sure you disconnect that from your computer to keep crypto-locker away.

That's something Barbee desperately wishes she had done.

She still isn't giving up hope, though, that someone will figure out how to get her photos back.

So the big question is: do you pay or not?

The answer isn't clear.

Perricone says crypto-locker is known to actually do what it says - you pay and get your data back.

But the FBI recommends against it, because paying will encourage the hackers to keep attacking other computer users.