If Bruce with a foreign accent calls, offers to fix your computer, hang up

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 08, 2015, at 3:01 p.m.

You get a call from someone claiming to be from Windows Helpdesk, Windows Service Center, Microsoft Tech Support, Microsoft Support or a similar sounding name.

The caller says he has “detected trouble with your computer” and can help you fix it. Red flags should be flying, because this is one of the most frequently perpetrated scams going. Microsoft warns consumers about these scams and offers tips for spotting fake calls.

The clues are all there. Most callers are heavily accented but give very American-sounding names. They claim your computer is infected with a virus or is operating “with a lot of errors.” They can fix this, they claim, if you’ll only turn over control of your computer to them online and send them a few hundred dollars.

It’s always a scam. No cold-caller could possibly know whether your computer is operating correctly. Those “errors” are typical operating vagaries a scammer tries to make you believe will damage your system if left alone.

Give up control of your computer to someone who calls out of the blue, and you run the risk of having your passwords, financial data and other personal details stolen. Thieves could use that information to drain bank accounts, ruin your credit and steal your identity.

If successful, they’ll probably call back and try to sell you worthless computer security software. Once a scammer succeeds, you can bet your phone number will go on other crooks’ call sheets.

The Federal Trade Commission tried to crack down on the tech support scam, as the crime has become known. In September 2012, the FTC froze the assets of 14 companies working the scam. The agency said the “repair” fees ranged from $49 to $450 and netted thieves tens of millions of dollars from innocent consumers.

That put a few crooks out of business, at least for a while. However, cheap international phone rates and sophisticated dialing programs offer criminals the means to exploit the fears of computer users.

If you let the scammers prattle on, they’ll urge you to open a Microsoft event utility viewer; it’s built into Windows and lists harmless errors legitimate repair people can use to fix operating problems. The crooks point to the “error” and “warning” messages as signs that disaster is about to strike, when in fact the computer may be operating just fine.

The caller might then try to trick you into visiting a phony website and downloading what appears to be a repair tool; in fact, it’s malware that can lock up one or more programs on your computer. The caller may later demand a ransom to allow those programs to work properly again. Or the scammers might install malicious software that turns your computer into a “zombie,” which in turn looks for more computers to infect.

If you receive such a phone call, the best thing to do is hang up. Never buy any software or services from these cold callers. Don’t give them a credit card number or other financial information. And don’t click on links at websites to which you’re directed or in emails they send you. And never turn control of your computer over to anyone other than a known representative of a company with which you already have a business relationship for computer service.

If you have given information, change passwords to your computer, main email service and any financial programs. Do an anti-virus scan to look for malware; if you’re unsure whether the scan has dealt with any problems, you may want to take the computer to a local company you trust to have it thoroughly checked out.

If you’ve shared personal or financial information with a scammer, you may want to place a fraud alert on your credit report. Get details from the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, credit.maine.gov, or call 1-800-332-8529 (1-800-DEBT-LAW).

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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