Cyber-extortion losses skyrocket, says FBI

Ransomware attacks target schools and hospitals
Ransomware attacks target schools and hospitals

New estimates from the FBI show that the costs from so-called ransomware have reached an all-time high.

Cyber-criminals collected $209 million in the first three months of 2016 by extorting businesses and institutions to unlock computer servers.

At that rate, ransomware is on pace to be a $1 billion a year crime this year. The FBI told CNN that the number "is quite high" because a few people "reported large losses."

The agency also said that the losses could even be bigger once other related costs from these extortion schemes are factored in. Plus: Some victims may choose to pay and not report the crime.

CNN recently reported on this fast-growing crime.

In one case, a South Carolina school district paid an estimated $10,000 when cyber-criminals locked up its computer servers.

That relatively small amount is the norm because it encourages companies and institutions to pay up as soon as possible to regain control of their computers.

"The ransomware criminals understand this," said Paul Roberts, founder and editor of a website called The Security Ledger. Their business in some ways is a volume business so they don't set their ransom so high that you can't pay it. They set it at a level so they can get their money and move on to the next victim."

Related: U.S. hospitals are getting hit by hackers

Roberts said that many of the cyber-criminal groups operate out of Russia and the former Soviet republicans in Eastern Europe.

CNNMoney Sponsors