The FBI says ransomware extortion cases have skyrocketed to record levels for the first three months of 2016.
According to cyber-crime officials, criminals have already collected $209 million from January through March 2016.
Criminals collect money by extorting businesses and institutions to unlock computer servers which are attacked with software that encrypts all of their files.
The FBI says attacks are likely to reach $1 billion by the end of the year. The agency says some companies have also reported “large losses” because of the scam.
Some companies, to avoid humiliating public disclosures are also likely to be paying the fees and not reporting them publicly.
In one case, a South Carolina school district paid an estimated $10,000 when cyber-criminals locked up its computer servers.
Ransomeware typically asks for just several hundred dollars per hack. The small amount convinces most businesses to pay immediately to regain access to their systems.
Many of the cyber extortionists are located in Russia and the former Soviet republicans in Eastern Europe.
Among the most dangerous attacks in recent months have been ransomware cases against US hospitals, some of which have had to turn away patients during system down times.