A Night with the Scammers

cardholder servicesI’ll get to Rachel. Be patient.

Since I starting using an iMac a year or so ago, I haven’t touched Donna’s Windows PC. She asks me before opening documents attached to incoming emails, or when she gets a message telling her to take some action or other to improve her computers’ performance, and I of course always tell her not to do it. But I don’t think she knows how to update her antivirus program. I really should be doing that for her. Just in case.

So, last night: at 8:45 PM and again at 9:10 PM, back-to-back calls from “Windows.” In the first call, a man with an Indian accent told me he was “calling from Windows” to alert me that my Windows PC was infested with viruses and that someone was using it to send spam messages as part of a network of hijacked computers. He wanted me to go to the computer and log in, at which point he’d confirm my IP address and help me remove the viruses and botnet files. Everything about the call hit me as wrong, so I told him so and hung up. Ten minutes later a female with an Indian accent, his “manager,” called. I said the same thing to her and hung up again.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn Donna’s computer has been infected and hacked. But have you ever in your life heard of Microsoft tech support cold-calling registered users to tell them they have problems? And then there’s the whole idea of giving some stranger remote access to my wife’s computer. Might as well invite the next random guy I pass on the street into our house and show him where we keep the good silver.

This morning I Googled “Windows telephone scam” and learned it’s a well-known one that’s been around a while. As with my calls, most originate in India. The scammers represent themselves as employees of Windows, scare you with stories of viruses and botnets, and try to talk you into giving them remote access to your PC in order to fix it. If you go along with it, at some point they’ll ask you to pay for one or more critical files, which they’ll say are essential parts of the fix. I didn’t see that part coming, but I did see the part where, once you’d let them into your computer, they’d inject it with the very viruses and botnet files you thought they were helping you get rid of.

The linked article, dated Oct 4 2012, mentions an imminent major Federal Trade Commission crackdown on boiler room call center operations. I’ll assume for now the FTC did indeed crack down, just as I assume someone actually does work at the National Do Not Call Registry. That and three bucks might get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Because in spite of any FTC crackdown, in spite of the Do Not Call Registry, we still get these calls. Savvy people, at least in the tech industry, have been on to these “I am calling you from Windows” scammers for years now. But they’re still calling, and they wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t making money at it. Probably every one of us has reported Rachel from “cardholder services” to the Do Not Call Registry, but she keeps right on calling.

The linked article contains this wishy-washy statement: “While Do Not Call laws have stopped most reputable companies from harassing people over the telephone, they have had only limited effect against those whose reputation can’t go any lower.”

Couple of problems with that. One, even back in the bad old days, reputable companies didn’t run telephone scams, did they? Okay, maybe those “record of the month” clubs. Two, only limited effect? How about no effect whatsoever? When Congress set up the Do Not Call Registry several years ago, most of us thought it would be used to put illegal boiler room operators out of business. Apparently they just moved overseas, where US law can’t touch them.

I’m not especially tech savvy, but I like to think I have good spidey sense when it comes to scammers. Sadly, many people don’t. A good basic rule to follow is this: if they call you, it’s a scam. That also works for text messages, email, and online pitches: if they initiate the contact, it’s a scam.

You know what? Forget the first part of the rule and just remember this: it’s a scam. These days that seems like the best advice.

© 2013, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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