“Hey, I’ve got one for you.”
It seems that more and more conversations begin that way, when people realize how often I write about scams in this column.
Two people delivered the message just last week, based on “cold calls” each had received. The first call was to a neighbor of mine; it was from a person posing as a computer security expert. The thickly-accented caller first asked if my neighbor had any Microsoft computer products in the house (Hint One: most households do).
My neighbor recalled thinking, “I know this is going to cost me some money.” Had he not been the suspicious consumer who had heard such a line before, he might indeed have lost some money. The pitch went something like this: There are lots of viruses out there, and your computer may be infected…I can help you check.
The pitch continues: Type in these keystrokes and you should see a log of errors your computer has made. If there are more than a few errors, you need the software “fix” I’m selling for only $79 a year.
“I was skeptical from the very beginning,” my neighbor said, and with good reason. Had he gone along, the caller would likely have persuaded him to download malware that would have given the caller remote access to his computer. Then, the thief could have stolen personal information about the neighbor (if it were stored on the computer) or hijacked the computer for other shady activities down the road.
This, on top of shelling out $79 for software that was at best useless or at worst actually harmful.
If the scheme sounds familiar, it is. It surfaced in October, when callers billing themselves as tech support people were running the same scam. Sometimes they would strike twice, calling back after the first scam and offering to “fix” whatever damage the malware did with even more bogus programs.
Microsoft confirms that it does “not send unsolicited email messages or make unsolicited phone calls to request personal or financial information or fix your computer … If you receive an unsolicited call from someone claiming to be from Microsoft tech support, hang up. We do not make these kinds of calls.”
Just to be sure we hadn’t missed something, I called Computer Essentials in Bangor. Chad Barrett, one of the technicians there, confirmed that his company receives calls regularly about such scams. He and his colleagues assure callers that there’s nothing to worry about.
What about that screen showing all those computer errors? “They’re so insignificant; every computer has them,” he assured me. Most computers keep a log of operating errors, and the vast majority should be of no concern to users, he added.
The usual advice about computers applies. Keep your anti-virus software updated. Be suspicious of random calls from people who “suspect you may have a problem” they can fix for a fee. And never install software — free or otherwise — from someone who calls out of the blue.
The Federal Trade Commission made headlines last fall when it cracked down on scam artists operating from India. However, the scams are so widespread and so hard to trace, it’s critical for all computer users to be on guard against these schemes.
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 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live. com.