Believe it or not, criminals care.
Where the big-time companies might sometimes drop the ball when it comes to customer service, scam artists are more than willing to cold-call unsuspecting consumers, impersonating employees of household brands and offering free services.
One of the latest schemes has digital predators posing as Microsoft technicians and using scare tactics to fool victims into turning over access to their computers, often triggering bogus alerts and tricking them into paying for support. Others will con victims into installing software that could capture sensitive information like user names, passwords and credit card data.
Last April, Ann Marie Farley, of Falls Township, fell victim.
Just about two months after she paid Microsoft $99 to rid her computer of viruses, Farley received a call from someone claiming to be a Microsoft Support Tech, warning that her computer was at risk.
The caller told Farley that Microsoft’s server had crashed and the security anti-virus installed on Farley’s computer was no longer working, they said.
She had a contract with Microsoft and they were responsible for keeping her computer safe, they said.
They wanted to get into her computer and check to see if there were any viruses and install a new security anti-virus, they said.
She soon realized something was off when she overheard voices in the background reciting the same script. But by that point, Farley had already agreed to turn over access of her computer to the caller, who was now working remotely on her computer while she watched.
After the “tech” downloaded something that brought up a screen listing errors and alerts on the computer, Farley was told to fill out a form listing her user name, password, address, phone number and — you guessed it — credit card number.
The call ended there, but Farley’s ordeal was just getting started.
After catching on to the hoax, Farley smartly covered all the bases. First, she notified Experian and put an alert on her credit report. She also reported the incident to the Federal Trade Commission and Microsoft’s legal division.
Both pledged to investigate. But the only calls that poured in were from the hackers, she said, who continued to call as recently as last week.
Through it all, Farley said her biggest concern was: “Who helps the consumer in catching these hacker criminals?”
What I found is there are a few actions to take, albeit limited ones.
If you choose to call Microsoft directly, and if you can stomach wading through the series of prompts while barking voice commands into the phone only to eventually be told the call volume is higher than Bill Gates’ net worth, a Microsoft customer service representative will run through a script asking for a slew of information about the type of problem you’re experiencing.
Continuing on the call — and again, if you can stand the wait — the representative will ultimately tell you Microsoft will never, ever cold-call customers.
That information can also be found on Microsoft’s website as part of a lengthy tutorial warning people of the scam.
In fact, in a December blog post elsewhere on the site, the software giant admitted receiving over 65,000 customer complaints in a seven-month period. The epidemic even forced Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit to file a civil lawsuit against several perpetrators for the deceptive practices.
Unfortunately, once you’ve let hackers into your computer, the damage is mostly done, said Dave LaBar, a technician at PC Doctors in Wilkes-Barre.
“Once they’ve already fallen victim, they really don’t have many other options other than to come in and get a virus removal,” said LaBar, who estimated PC Doctors receives about five calls per week, sometimes more, about the hoax.
Most criminals aren’t looking to harm the computer at all, LaBar told me. They’re looking to get money out of the user by displaying fake readings.
Once people turn over access, they’ll go and remove the fake readings, only they end up leaving behind back doors in their security, which allows other malicious viruses to come through, he explained.
There isn’t much the authorities can do, either, he said. Their resources are stretched thin and they don’t have the capacity to worry about someone putting a virus on a computer.
The best way to avoid the ordeal is to be aware of it.
LaBar advises consumers to be assertive and never give out personal information to an unknown caller.
“If you don’t know what it is, say no,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt to say no.”
Reach Joe Dolinsky at 570-991-6110 or on Twitter @JoeDolinskyTL.