Silent phone calls are a pain; those call centers offering riches from your bank following a change in legislation, or a new government initiative that you can take advantage of, are irritating. But worst of all is the Windows Tech Support scam, indiscriminately targeting people all across North America, the EU, and Australia.
Our Previous Article on Windows Tech Support Scams
Back in January 2015, I received a call from someone claiming to be from “Windows Tech Support”. These cold calling scammers had “detected” that my PC was “infected” with a virus, and wanted to use remote desktop software to connect to my PC to “clean” the supposed threat.
Fortunately, I was wise to this. Calls like this are a regular occurrence in the UK; indeed, I can recall receiving several when I worked in the IT department (of all places!) of a local healthcare organization (which proves that these people take a scattergun approach to their scam).
On the phone for around 15 minutes, the latter portion of the conversation went like this:
Now, I was lucky enough to realize instantly what was going on. While I kept the caller talking, I got my wife to hold the landline while I quickly recorded the call with my smartphone. But not everyone gets the chance to react in the way that they should.
The Danger of Scammers
Whichever way you look at it, these people are dangerous. Either they want to siphon off a chunk of cash in order to fix a problem on your PC that doesn’t exist (or if it does, their call is coincidental, and they don’t have the required knowhow to resolve it), or when you call them out, they swear and curse, use threatening language, and perhaps even offer to kill you – depending on how long you wasted their time.
Put simply, hanging up is safer. While stringing the scammer along may stop them conning someone less aware of the con, or how their computer works, it also puts you at greater risk.
Following my previous article on this scam, we received a deluge of responses, some offering their own methods for wasting the scammer’s time, others recalling how they were affected by the calls. Here’s what Mary Kay Higgins told us:
“I started to get harassing cell phone calls the day after the scam. They were probably really annoyed to lose the $175.00. He said “Hello, is this Miss Mary … ” in an Indian accent and started saying something about what happened yesterday. I told him that I looked things up and know they are a bunch of frauds and that I never wanted them to call me again. As I was hanging up I could hear him yelling.”
That’s why you need to hang up.
Windows Tech Support Scam Scare Stories
While reading Mary Kay’s comment, I discovered that so many great stories have been shared. I urge you to head over to that article (via the link above) to check them out, but if you don’t have time, I’ve picked some of those that gave me pause for thought.
One such story is Debbie’s. She’s a home worker who was receiving calls as she fed her baby.
“[The scammer] told me it would cost me £99.99 to cover my computer for 2 yrs and I told him how on earth can I afford that with a young baby?! He said my computer will crash in 24hrs due to 6 or 7 known hackers trying to get into my computer. I asked him for a number to call him on as I told him he was holding me ransom.”
Forbes Smith has another worrying story.
“Jonathan (the Indian) did a good job of convincing me that they were legit and that it was my operating system that had alerted them to my PC having a ‘problem’. Unfortunately I allowed them remote access, and it was only when they told me that I needed to pay £99 for them to ‘fix’ the error that I smelled a rat. While we were arguing over the fact that I didn’t call them for support I wasn’t actually watching what was happening on the screen. I noticed a window open and it looked like a password was being set but before I could do or say anything they had ‘shut down’ my PC and disconnected the phone call.”
This last element is something new, which I hadn’t encountered before: scammers creating accounts to block (or baffle users used to a straightforward sign-on when they boot) access to Windows. The aim here would clearly be to prompt the victim to call them back for help, which they will then charge for.
It’s worth remembering, too, that the scammers don’t necessarily call you first. Michelle Line recalls her friend who clicked a link on Facebook, only for a window to pop up “notifying the user that ‘a virus was detected on your computer’ or something similar. And to call 888-751-5163, which she did.” The Russian “tech support” scammer then attempted to gain entry to the laptop.
Meanwhile, Galen also made a search for a phone number, only to find that the result for “McAfee Tech Support” on Google was a scam. On this occasion, however, it was the level of help offered by the scammer that raised suspicions.
“‘Edward’ told me I actually had purchased the wrong McAfee product and he said he would be happy to download the correct antivirus software onto all three of my laptops. I did think that was odd, as McAfee tech support had never been that helpful in the past…”
Now, if you’re thinking the people I’ve mentioned so far are a clue short of a detective story, think again. For instance, Galen (above) was grieving for her husband. Elsewhere, Rob Jenkins kindly shared the story of his father, who has fallen for the scam twice. “He is highly intelligent, has a PhD and ran a large organization for many years. Others shouldn’t feel too embarrassed or falling for this. It doesn’t make you an idiot, perhaps just too trusting of strangers.”
Rob then goes on to outline what is perhaps the best way of dealing with the scammers.
“When I get these calls, I try to play to their conscience. I ask how they can sleep at night knowing they are stealing from people and warn them about the damage they are doing to their own soul. Most remain quiet. One told me it doesn’t bother him at all. I hope I am getting to them and they may seek an honest living. I understand that people living in abject poverty can rationalize their actions, especially since they are calling people in wealthy countries, but in truth they are harming themselves.”
Tamsyn Ooi’s story is quite concerning. Not only are the scammers after your cash, it seems some of them are also sleazebags.
“I had a… call concerning a PC from a Pakistani sounding man and since it was so early in the morning, I pretended whoever it was for wasn’t in, and the man began to CHAT WITH ME (I pretended to be 16yrs old, I’m way older really). He was such a creep, asking what I do, where I work, how my voice was sexy. I told him I wanted to put the call down and he went ‘Why? Why do you want to put the phone down?’ I just replied that I wanted to and promptly did so. Creep.”
In what sense could that sort of behavior be considered acceptable?
Are Retailers or Manufacturers Involved?
I think we’ll finish with Nikki’s story. This is a particularly concerning tale, as the victim had just bought a new PC, and used a particular set of credentials. Says Nikki:
“I do not get scammed easily. This person knew my legal name – which of course I use when making purchases – and she also knew that I had just recently purchased a computer with Windows 7. My legal name is not listed anywhere – even our local phone directory only uses the first initial of my nickname. I feel as if the scammers somehow got my information from the company where I recently purchased the computer.”
A similar story comes from LAC:
“It took me a while to figure out it was a scam because I had recently asked for some tech support. At first the call seemed legit because the “Windows technician” seemed to know some personal information about me and my laptop.”
Which begs the question: are retail store staff – or even employees of computer manufactures – in bed with the scammers?
Why Action Is Needed on the Windows Tech Support Scam
But as long as these scams make money for criminal businesses – which at the very least have links to organized crime, and which may also have connections to extremists – they pose a risk. Is it unreasonable to demand that the telephony surveillance powers of the NSA and GCHQ should be used to trace and block such calls?
How would you like to see the authorities deal with this scam? Been hit by it yourself recently (if so, follow these steps to shore up your security)? Share your story in the comments. And huge thanks to all of those who got in touch with us last time around.