It takes a lot to surprise the group of go-to geeks I frequently contact for this column.
Paul Rosenberg, for example, has experienced plenty of computer issues as the owner of the repair shop Love Your Computer in Chapel Hill. But when he received a call from a client about a scam combining elements of scareware, social engineering and outright fraud, he was concerned enough to alert me.
Hes seen the scam work a few different ways, but the end result is that users are tricked into expensive service contracts after being told over the phone that their computers are on the verge of a meltdown.
They also seem to have specific targets in mind.
Every single person Ive received a call from about this is over 50, Rosenberg said. Theyre calling older users and trying to dupe them.
One client, he says, received a call out of the blue one morning claiming to be from Microsoft. They told the man they received security alerts from his computer and that they could remotely access his system to fix it for a price.
The technique is similar to that of scareware, fake antivirus software that saw a huge rise in 2010. But the human element a real person on the line asking to access your computer takes the social engineering to another level.
The bottom line is that theyre manufacturing a crisis, Rosenberg told me last week.
Trust your instincts
There are less fraudulent ways for companies to push users toward pricey contracts.
Use Google to search for Canon printer support or Microsoft support, and youll notice the official company websites often appear under ad-supported options that offer toll-free numbers and instant tech support. What you end up with is often something different.
I have heard this story over and over again, Rosenberg said. Most people get to the point where theyre shaken down for $190 or whatever, and they stop.
I dont doubt that there are some legitimate tech support companies online that do help users and reach them through these paid Google links. But telling the difference between the good and bad actors can be difficult especially for the average user.
I also have a problem with any company that tries to redirect users away from tech support theyve already paid for. When you buy a printer from Canon or an operating system from Microsoft, tech support is built into the price. Remember that whenever someone proposes you fork over more of your hard-earned money for a fix.
Despite the brazen nature of these scams, avoiding them isnt difficult with a little guidance, the most important of which is to trust your instincts.
If it smells fishy, it probably is, Rosenberg said.
Watch that URL
No legitimate software company will ever contact you about malicious information they noticed on your computer, Rosenberg said, so its safe to disregard messages like these wholesale.
When youre looking for tech support, go directly to the manufacturer. Most software has built-in support (the help menu, for example) that can lead you directly to the companys website without having to click on links in a suspicious email or a search engine.
If youre trying to reach Microsoft, dont go to Google, Rosenberg said.
And pay special attention to the Web address. Its rare for a company not to own its own domain (check the part right before the .com), so imitators can be easy to spot that way.
It boils down, as it always does, to adopting a bit of healthy suspicion. I always find distrust is a good default setting.
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