Yes they can. A malicious piece of software called ransomware can be unintentionally installed on your computer and hold you to ransom for access to your own files.
You may have clicked on a seemingly innocent email or website and the ransomware has downloaded to your computer. Then a screen appears with a message such as
“All of the files on this computer have been encrypted. You have 24 hours to submit payment to receive the encryption key, otherwise your files will be permanently destroyed.”
You can choose to pay, in the hope of getting access to your files but there is no guarantee. You can choose to ignore the threat or you can go to an IT expert for assessment. Sometimes the message on screen is more threatening, such as
It may display what looks like an FBI page warning that you have committed an illegal act and must pay a fine or it may appear to a UK Police Force or some other authority. It is all fake of course as the FBI and other authorities do not practice blackmail.
To protect your computers against ransomware, make sure you have up to date anti-virus installed, take regular backups of all important documents and consider installing anti malware software.
Across the globe in 2014, there were 8.8 million ransomware attacks reported and this crime is rising rapidly.
For more information go to Ransomware: What is it?