By David Wach June 20, 2016
A “Windows Technician” called me to today. This really comes as no surprise. I’ve received about dozen of these phones calls in the past. I’ve known about this scam for a number of years, but he was very convincing nonetheless. In fact, if I wasn’t an IT professional, I may have considered letting him walk me through some of the “troubleshooting” that he was going to provide to me.
As I was uttering some profanities and laughing into the phone, I thought to myself – who would fall for this? The answer popped into my head immediately: My mother, my sister, my in-laws, my friends, my co-workers, my neighbors…we are all at risk. Sure, some of you would say, “Not me! I wouldn’t fall for that.” Unfortunately, the fact is that people do fall for these scams. And while you may not fall for it, someone you know probably already has. Why else would this guy be trying so relentlessly to convince me?
With this thought in mind, I would like to share some information and some basic tips with you in the hopes that you will, in turn, share with your friends and family to help to protect against this type of scam. First, a proactive approach to protecting yourself before the phone even rings.
Proactive Step 1: Anti-Virus software: Install it and Keep it up to date!
Before we get into the phone call, there are number of free and\or inexpensive products out there that will help you to “leave a light on” your computer. A quick Google search will yield a variety of programs to choose from. McAfee and Norton are two of the most common Anti-Virus Software packages, and while most IT people would scoff at them, they are better than nothing. Both can have a tendency to slow your computer down as they tend to be heavy on resources. My opinion changes monthly on AV software, but I would recommend Microsoft Security Essentials (Free), AVG, or Webroot. Bear in mind that while whichever you choose will offer protection against Viruses and Malware, the virus-creators of the world work extra hard at trying to get into your computer, so any missing updates could have terrible consequences.
Proactive Step 2: Operating System and Software Updates: Keep them up to date!
Still prior to the phone ringing, whether you use a PC, Mac or Linux computer, it is always recommended that you stay updated with the latest versions. I’m sure everyone has heard that updates can cause corruption and break your computer and though this is true to some extent, the risk of not keeping your computer current is far greater. If you’re still running a version of Windows that is no longer supported, (XP users, you know who you are!) then it’s time to trade in for a younger model.
Proactive Step 3: Back it up!
While looking at the proactive defenses against these virus-spreading villains, it is wise to have your data backed up whether you store images and videos of your family, an extensive music library, schoolwork, taxes, or client information. Though external hard drives are an affordable solution and good in a pinch, I don’t personally recommend them as they tend to have a higher failure rate. Additionally, the biggest threat to computers today is RansomWare (a type of virus that encrypts your files and holds them hostage until you pay for the keys), and if your external drive is plugged into your computer and you are infected, then the drive will become encrypted as well. There are several home solutions on the market that are reliable but I recommend using Carbonite (https://www.carbonite.com/). It is a solution that can buy you peace of mind for as little as $42.00 per year with a 3 year subscription. Additionally, Carbonite can help you to recover from RansomWare as they keep up to 12 versions of your files available to you. As an added bonus, their customer service has been excellent the few times that I’ve had to reach out to them – and we all know how short companies can be on customer service these days. Their representatives are patient, helpful and knowledgeable.
Now that we are protected to our best ability, let’s look at the “Do’s and Don’ts” of the actual phone call from that “Windows Technician.”
- Hang up before the conversation begins!
Have you ever noticed that there is often a delay when an unwanted telemarketer calls? This long pause is the result of an automated dialing system passing the call to an agent once a live voice is detected on your end. Generally speaking, these “people” (I struggle to call them that) use the same type of software. If you answer your phone and no one is there, HANG UP IMMEDIATELY. Chances are the person calling you is not someone you want to talk to anyway so there is no point in saying “Hello” more than once. If it is important, they’ll call back. It’s been my experience that the automated systems don’t call you back right away.
- Don’t Panic!
So your curiosity has gotten the better of you and you’ve waited for someone to say hello back? The first thing that they will tell you is that they are from Windows, Dell, HP or possibly Microsoft or some other reputable product or business. They WILL use your name. They will tell you that your computer is infected and that they can help you to fix the problem. Keep calm and know the following:
- Know that there is generally no chance that one of these companies would EVER call your house to try and help you resolve an issue.
NOTE: There are services out there that you would pay for (Dell ProSupport Plus for example) that would provide this support, but they are generally enterprise level. If you are using a workplace provided computer or laptop, please reach out to your own Tech Support prior to taking any actions with someone who is calling you.
- Know that the people on the other line are hoping that you will take the bait. They will use fancy geek speak like CLSID, CMOS, and BIOS. If you don’t know what those things are, don’t worry about it. It’s not important and it’s just another scare tactic that makes them sound reputable.
- Don’t Provide Any Information and Hang Up!
So, you’ve answered the phone and you’re keeping calm? Hang Up! If you’re still on the hook then please, DO NOT give up any information that they are asking for or take any of the steps they are suggesting you take with your computer. They are going to try and steer you to a place where they can infect your computer and steal your personal information. They want your social security number and credit card information. They could potentially install viruses and malware to your computer that will capture this information even if you don’t provide it to them over the phone. Generally, their end game for this scam is identity theft or fraud. As long as you don’t give in to their scare tactics and ploys, they cannot get that information from you.
- Play Along, Save Some People
From time to time as a professional IT Consultant I stay on the phone with these people because I feel I’m doing the rest of society a small favor by keeping the guy on the phone for as long as I can before I get bored of the conversation. Every minute he is talking to me is another minute he’s NOT talking to you.
A few examples of responses from these pesky professionals:
- I’ve lied and said that I have 100 computers and asked which one was infected and the response I got was, “All of them.”
- I’ve played dumb and said that I couldn’t find the power button to turn on my computer (while cooking breakfast for my kids) only to hear the guy ask, “Are you stupid or something, sir?” I found it funny that he added the “Sir” so I laughed and said, “Yes,” and hung up.
- I’ve even told a fake Microsoft technician that I was illiterate when he asked me to read what I saw on the screen to which he responded with, “I don’t know what that means.”
Towards the end of the phone call it usually takes a harsh turn with them telling me that I’ll never be able to use my computer, cursing and swearing, and in one case the caller threatened to kill me. This is why I do not encourage you to stay on the phone. We don’t know how far these guys can reach or how willing they are to do so. They have my name and phone number already and, with that, they could potentially deduce my email address, look up my home address, or continue to call. After one phone call involving another type of scam where the guy on the other end was trying to sell me toner and I kept him on the phone for nearly 15 minutes before letting him know that I didn’t have a printer, he called right back after I hung up to curse at me, which for some people can be quite rattling.
That’s it. Really we can sum up everything above with a few simple basics that will help you not to fall victim to this type of scam:
- Keep your computers up to date.
- Keep your files backed up.
- Keep Calm when confronted by the “Windows Technician.”
- Keep your information to yourself.
- Hang Up!
Please share this with your co-workers, friends and family. Telephone scammers prey on the uninformed as they are the most vulnerable. If you receive a call and are unsure of what to do, contact your Network Administrator, Managed Service Provider or that friend of yours that is “Tech Savvy” for direction, and they ask if they can take a look at your computer for you.