Posey's Tips & Tricks

Avoiding Tech Support Scams

While you might be able to spot an obvious scam from a mile away, friends and family may need some warning.

I was all set to start writing my posts this month, but abruptly decided to change topics because I felt the need to write about something important that has impacted a number of friends and family members. I'm talking about some of the more recent tech support scams.

About a month ago, I received an unsolicited phone call from someone claiming to be from the Tech Support Department. The call's audio quality wasn't very good, and I'm honestly not sure if he claimed to be from the Microsoft Tech Support Department, or just the Tech Support Department. At any rate, the guy on the phone told me in a heavy Indian accent, that he was calling me because my computer had signaled to him that I had a lot of errors, and that those errors were most likely the result of a virus or being hacked.

Now I knew right away that the call was bogus. Microsoft tech support members don't make unsolicited tech support calls, and they certainly don't remotely monitor your event logs for errors. Although I probably should have hung up, I decided to toy with the scammer a bit in an effort to figure out what he was up to.

To make a long story short, he walked me through the process of opening the Event Viewer and then proceeded to show me some completely normal and totally harmless error messages. The particular log that the scammer chose (I can't remember which one it was) contained 400+ error messages. The scammer told me that the sheer number of errors that I had received meant that my computer was in very bad condition and that I needed to let them fix it. I asked what that would involve and was told that for the low, low price of $499.00, he establish a remote control session with my PC and remove the problem. It was at that point that I hung up on the scammer. Playing along with a scammer to see what they are up to is one thing, but I wasn't about to allow someone to remotely control my PC.

After the call, I did two things. First, I posted a short warning to my friends on Facebook (I only use Facebook to maintain contact with family and close personal friends). Second, I searched for YouTube videos posted by people who might have received similar calls. I wanted to know how the scam plays out.

The scam, it seems, has a number of variations. From what I gathered from the videos that I watched, it usually ends with the scammer password locking the PC or its data until the victim pays money to have it unlocked. Incidentally, if anyone has fallen victim to this, some of my research has indicated that one of the more common passwords that scammers have been using when the lock PCs is 1234.

The thing that really bothered me, and the reason why I decided to write this particular post is that after posting my warning on Facebook I have had several people tell me that they have either received similar calls and hung up, or have fallen victim to the scam.

Just last night, in fact, a family member called and told me about a variation of the scam. This particular person received an e-mail message that appeared to be from another relative with whom he had lost contact. Upon opening the message, the PC was immediately flooded with popups. Eventually, the PC displayed a message indicating that the machine was infected with a virus and to call tech support at the number provided. Not knowing any better, this person called the phone number, where an alleged tech support engineer attempted to scam him in roughly the same way that I described above. Thank goodness he didn't give the scammer a credit card number!

I'm sure that those of you who read my column on a regular basis are computer savvy enough that you would never fall for such a scam. However, I ask that you please caution your loved ones and tell them that Microsoft Support does not make these sorts of unsolicited calls. As an IT pro it is easy to dismiss such as scam as being completely laughable. However, based on my own observations, this scam is relatively common and a number of people do apparently fall victim to it.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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