Have you ever received a phone call from Microsoft, Apple or Dell saying that there are viruses on your system and you need to act on it? If so, hang up the phone. It’s most likely a common scam that catches many people off guard. The same goes for any email or pop-up warning instructing you to call a toll-free number or else your computer and its data will be destroyed.
The scam works when you initiate a call to a (bogus) “tech support” line, where they will ask you to turn over control of your computer to them so that they can run (phony) diagnostic tests and then pretend to find a virus that will freeze or eat your data. The scammers will likely hold up your computer for “ransom” and demand a credit card payment of several hundred dollars to fix the problem. It’s essentially extortion, with all of the data on your computer at risk unless you pay.
They will threaten that if you don’t pay the ransom, they will encrypt all of the files on your computer—your photos, documents, tax returns—anything you’ve saved to your hard drive or shared folders. Once the files are encrypted, you won’t be able to open them without the encryption key—which you can get only from the criminals behind the scam, who infected your computer in the first place (unfortunately, with your help). Once your files have been encrypted, there’s no way to recover them. You could pay the ransom, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get the encryption key.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also notes that some scam callers or emails claim to be connected with familiar security software companies, like Norton or McAfee, or even from rogue cybersecurity companies with legitimate sounding names—like Spy Wiper or System Defender.
Red flags to look for
Here are some warning signs that you may be scammed:
- An unsolicited phone call or email from someone claiming to work for a brand tech company.
- Companies like Microsoft and others say they DO NOT contact customers unless the customer initiates the conversation.
- A pop-up or blue screen appears on your computer, phone or tablet with a warning that a virus has infected your device. The message urges you to immediately call a toll-free number or click a link.
- The email message contains bad grammar or misspelled words—always a dead giveaway.
- You are asked to pay for tech support or services with a gift card or wire transfer.
How to respond
- If you receive a tech support call, unless you initiated the call—hang up! Also, don’t rely on Caller ID to determine legitimacy. Scammers use “spoofing” to make it look like they’re calling from a legitimate number.
- If you receive a warning message or blue screen, DO NOT click on any links, and then shut down your browser.
- If you receive directions to call a toll-free number, DO NOT call and definitely don’t give remote control of your computer to anyone.
- Don’t buy security software from a company you don’t know. However, it is a good idea to use antivirus software to regularly scan your computer for malware.
- Don’t share your personal financial information—like passwords, credit card or bank account numbers—in emails or over the phone.
- If you actually DO suspect something is wrong with your computer, go to someone you know and trust. Most software companies offer support online or by phone, but the call must be initiated by you. Many retailers that sell computer equipment also offer technical support in person.
In an article published in USA Today, Frank Abagnale, a notorious white-collar criminal turned security consultant, noted that scammers have the ability to turn computer screens dark, make images look fuzzy and convince a consumer there’s a problem. It can look very believable.
Who’s vulnerable? A Microsoft survey indicated that Millennials are more likely than Baby Boomers to be tricked by online pop-up ads connected to tech-support scams. Small businesses and individuals who work from home are also vulnerable. But Abagnale says, “It’s really not an age thing. It’s more about just being naïve about what’s going on.”
For more Cyber Security articles, visit Tower’s Financial Know-How page.
A Tower Member Gives a Real-life Example
“One lazy afternoon we received a phone call from our son, who was away at college. “Hi, Dad.” …”Hi, Dave. You need money?”… “No. Well, yeah. But that’s not why I’m calling…some guy from Microsoft called me to tell me that my computer was hacked or something, and I should click on a link to fix it.” …”Tell me you didn’t click on the link?” my husband said breathlessly. “I clicked on the link.” The air left the room. By clicking on that link, my son had become a victim of a Ransomware scam. Our story proceeded with my son dropping off his thoroughly locked-up computer to my husband, who spent half a day doing a system restore until he was successful in restoring his data.”
While this member was able to fix his son’s computer, others are not so lucky. They have to hire a technician to fix the mess, and expend considerable time, trouble and money in the process. (Or you can attempt to DIY and look up “Performing a System Restore” on YouTube.)
It’s a common story, but preventable. Please share this information with family and friends so that they know what to watch out for to avoid being victims of tech scams.
Resources: Fraud.org, FTC.gov, USA Today, AARP