You get a call at home from someone who claims to be from Microsoft tech support. In an urgent, breathless tone, he warns your computer has been compromised with a dangerous virus. You need to follow his instructions, to the letter, immediately.
Relax, your computer is fine. It's just the latest scam that's making the rounds - one known as the "tech support scam."
In many ways it's very clever and effective. Most of us, after all, aren't computer geeks. We might not know much about computers but we do know that having a dangerous computer virus is not a good thing.
Also, we've heard of Microsoft. It's a huge company and chances are, some of its products are running on our machine. If they say we've got a computer virus, who are we to question them? They're Microsoft.
Out to pick your pocket
Only they aren't. Chances are the caller is offshore, in India or Russia. Their objective, ultimately, is to pick your pocket.
Scammers preying on computer users is nothing new. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the previous computer scams involved setting up fake websites and offering free security scans. Once the alleged scan has run, you would then receive an alarming message that your computer was infected. The scammer would then sell you security software that, at best was worthless and at worst, would be loaded with malware.
The new version of the scam is "old school," in that it involves a telephone call. If the scammer gains the victim's trust, he instructs the victim to perform a series of complex tasks. Sometimes, they target legitimate computer files and claim that they are viruses. Their tactics are designed to scare you into believing they can help fix your "problem."
Bad things can happen
They may ask you to run a bit of code, or download a file from a website. If you do, a lot of bad things can happen.
You could give them remote access to your computer so that they can then make changes to your computer, leaving it vulnerable. They may have you download malware that could steal sensitive data, like user names, bank account numbers and passwords.
That allows them to come back later and either steal money from your bank account or use your computer to send out hundreds of thousands of spam messages. But they may also go for money up front.
Asking for a credit card
Some victims have reported that the scammers assure them they can fix the non-existent problems remotely but that it will cost a small fee, like $19.95. If the victim agrees, the scammer hits the card for thousands of dollars in purchases. Regardless of the tactics they use, they have one purpose, and that is to take your money.
If you receive one of these phone calls, the FTC suggests hanging up and calling the company back on a number you look up yourself. However, that's really just a waste of time. Microsoft says it does not call customers to warn them of computer viruses. It is safe to say, no other legitimate companies do either.
If you get a call from someone who claims to be a tech support person, just hang up. A caller who creates a sense of urgency or uses high-pressure tactics is almost certainly a scam artist.
The FTC also warns that searching online might not be the best way to find technical support or get a company's contact information. Scammers sometimes place online ads to convince you to call them. They pay to boost their ranking in search results so their websites and phone numbers appear above those of legitimate companies. If you want tech support, look for a company's contact information on their software package or on your receipt.