The UK has a “two-week period” to protect itself from a major computer virus that could give hackers access to sensitive information – costing the country millions of pounds.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) is warning internet users to “protect themselves against powerful malicious software” by checking that their anti-virus software is up-to-date, and running scans to ensure that all applications are running correctly.
The move came after the FBI in the United States was successful in disrupting a hacking network, making security updates by users particularly effective in the short term.
US authorities said they had charged a Russian national, Evgeniy Bogachev, who is accused of leading a gang which has stolen more than $100m (£60m) from business and other bank accounts.
The group is said to have infected thousands of computers with software that captured passwords and account numbers.
The viruses in question are known as GOZeuS and CryptoLocker, with the first hiding within attachments in e-mails that when open give computer access to hackers, who use the software to scan devices for valuable information.
CryptoLocker activates if no valuable data is found, and locks the computer, demanding a ransom to grant access again.
The NCA said people probably had around two weeks before criminals managed to get a seized “botnet” – a network of hijacked home computers – functioning again.
Andy Archibald, of the NCA’s National Cyber Crime Unit, said: “Nobody wants their personal financial details, business information or photographs of loved ones to be stolen or held to ransom by criminals. By making use of this two-week window, huge numbers of people in the UK can stop that from happening.
“Whether you find online security complicated or confusing, or simply haven’t thought about keeping your personal or office computers safe for a while, now is the time to take action.
“Our message is simple: update your operating system and make this a regular occurrence, update your security software and use it and, think twice before clicking on links or attachments in unsolicited e-mails.
“Those committing cyber crime impacting the UK are often highly-skilled and operating from abroad. To respond to this, the NCA is working closely with law enforcement colleagues all over the world, and developing important relationships with the private sector.”
Lamar Bailey, director of security research and development at software company Tripwire, said: “The design of these malware packages make it nearly impossible to completely wipe out, but a co-ordinated attack can cause damage.
“Countries are rolling out a massive consumer education programme to help clean up infected systems and reduce the number of vulnerable systems.”
UK-based internet awareness group Get Safe Online has urged computer users to improve security. On its website the group posted advice on monitoring potentially malicious e-mails, as well as links to free anti-virus software.”